We have all heard about the massive toy recalls due to excessive lead content, but did you know there may be an even bigger health threat to our children? Schools—loaded with toxins. With 55 million children spending their days at school, this can have massive health implications.
Like other public areas, classrooms and playgrounds have pests including weeds, fleas, flies, cockroaches, ants, wasps, mold/mildew, bacteria, rodents, and more—and schools use a variety of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodent baits, disinfectants, soil sterilants, and other chemicals to rid the area of these pests. But what risks do these pose for our children?
What are the Risks?
Studies show that indoor air can be 10 times more polluted than outdoor air. Many energy-efficient school buildings tightly contain contaminants, especially if ventilation is inadequate or poorly maintained—and children are especially at risk. Due to their smaller body mass and their developing systems, children are more vulnerable to pesticides and other toxins than adults are.
One commonly used class of pesticides, organophosphates, can adversely affect the heart—and that is only one kind of pesticide and one effect. The long list of other substances commonly used in and around schools includes chlopyifos (Dursban), an insecticide that, in large doses, is also a nervous-system poison; synthetic pyrethroids, including cypermethrin, which the EPA lists as a possible carcinogen; and Diazinon, frequently used on lawns, which can trigger nausea, dizziness, headaches, and aching joints, and in large doses, can act as a nervous system poison. Children exposed to these types of chemicals have shown decreased IQ, attention span, stamina, coordination, memory and drawing ability.
According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP), studies of pesticide harm point to everything from elevated rates of childhood leukemia, soft-tissue sarcomas (aggressive tumors), and brain cancers to childhood asthma and other respiratory problems. (Even simple leaks in schools can breed deadly mold behind walls and trigger an asthma attack.)
Dr. Phillip Landigan at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York is one of many doctors alarmed by hidden toxins in schools. "Today, too many chemicals are put into schools that have never been tested for the possible impacts they have on young children," Landigan says.
Good Morning America conducted an experiment in a classroom at P.S. 8 in New York to demonstrate how quickly kids get exposed to toxins. In the experiment, they applied Glo-Germ, a non-toxic powder only visible under ultra-violet light, in areas where pesticides are most likely to be sprayed or to settle (baseboards, windowsills and desktops). Then they invited the kids to play. After only 20 minutes of play, they found traces of Glo-Germ all over the kids’ clothes, hands and faces. The results were astounding and indicated how fast and how far resident toxins spread in among children in the classroom.
And New York schools are not alone. Between 1993 and 1996 Poison Control Centers received about 2,300 reports of pesticide accidents in schools. In 1998, Laing Middle School in Mount Pleasant, S.C., hired exterminators to kill underground termites, but the workers accidentally drilled holes into two empty classrooms and sprayed them with Dursban, a nervous-system toxin that is absorbed through the skin. The next day, teachers and students wiped the sticky mess off their desks with paper towels and soon complained of peeling skin and aching limbs. The classrooms were used for two months before parents were told about the accident and the rooms were renovated.
Sources of Toxins
The most common categories of chemical hazards in and around schools include:
- Janitorial supplies – These may contain acids or strong solvents that can burn eyes, skin or airways, or can cause cancer, liver or kidney damage, or blindness.
- Indoor pest-control and outdoor grounds-keeping supplies – These may include toxic pesticides, herbicides or fungicides linked to short- and long-term health effects.
Other health threats found in and around schools include: lead, radon and asbestos contamination; mold and mildew growth; animal dander; faulty ventilation; improper cleaning and maintenance; and new furniture and carpeting that emit formaldehyde gas or glue fumes. To add to the toxic mix—a recent survey found that 1,185 schools in five states (including California and New York) are located on or within one-half mile of major toxic-waste sites.
While it is disconcerting that our children were subjected to toys that had to be recalled due to excessive lead levels, etc., we need to be keenly aware of the toxic dangers that lurk in our schools.
School toxins are “subjects” we don’t want our students to absorb or be exposed to!
ABC News: Girl's Illness Traced to 'Toxic' School: Some Doctors Alarmed by Hidden Chemicals at Schools. Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/AmericanFamily/story?id=1200774
Brower, Daniella. Toxic Turf. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/parenting/features/toxic-turf
Motylewski, Kim. Chemically Dependent Schools: What Parents Must Know About Toxins at School. Available at: