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Environmental Issues
by Rose Marie Williams

School Environment – Healthy or Hazardous?

    We like to think schools are safe, healthy places that create an atmosphere conducive to learning, creativity and mind broadening experiences. In some cases, quite the opposite is true.
Modern construction materials, toxic chemical exposure and poor indoor air quality can impede learning, dull mental acuity, induce behavior disorders, and contribute to myriad health problems, not the least of which is asthma.
Parents, educators, and physicians need to become more aware of these environmental issues in order to act as true advocates for children’s health. Administrators, teachers, custodial and cafeteria staff need to learn more about the products they are exposed to in the workplace.
It is naive to expect government regulatory agencies to always act on our behalf. There are too many reasons why this often does not work. This column will highlight a few problems affecting children’s health in the school environment.

Pesticides in Schools

    Schools use toxic chemicals for pest and termite control in buildings; on lawns, trees, and athletic fields; as disinfectants and deodorizers; and as wood preservatives on “treated lumber” in playground equipment.
Synthetic pesticides, largely derived from petroleum products, include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and rodenticides. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registers these products because they are harmful to all living creatures.
It is a federal offense to advertise registered products as safe. Registration merely implies that the active ingredient will do what the label claims – kill or diminish some life form. Using a registered product in a manner not consistent with the directions is also a breach of law.
Pesticides are poisons that not only kill the target pest, but pose a serious threat to other organisms. Repeated exposures to small doses can be very harmful to humans and wildlife.
Some pesticides pose an additional threat because they are long lasting in an indoor environment. Dursban (active ingredient – chlorpyrifos) is one such chemical found to linger on furniture and release vapors into the air weeks after being sprayed.1
Chlorpyrifos, associated with numerous toxic health effects in children and birth defects in newborns, has finally been restricted by the EPA as of June, 2000, following years of lobbying efforts by health advocacy groups.

Pesticides and Children

    The two major classes of pesticides – organophosphate and carbamate insecticides – kill insects by disrupting nerve transmission. The nervous systems of humans are similarly affected by these neurotoxins.
Pesticides and children are a dangerous mix. Children are not merely miniature adults. They are more susceptible to exposure to pesticides for several reasons. Children play closer to the ground where pesticides are directly sprayed, and on floors or rugs where pesticides are tracked in on shoes.
Children’s unique eating patterns and hand to mouth behavior expose them to more pesticides than adults. They take in more food, water, and air per body weight than adults. Their skin is more absorbent to lipophilic agents than adults.2
Children’s decreased ability to detoxify and excrete pesticides, and the rapid growth, development, and differentiation of their vital organ systems compounds their risks of exposure to chemicals. Children’s underdeveloped immune systems make them more vulnerable to the toxic effects of pesticides.3

Pesticide Testing

    Some 70,000 chemicals are in the marketplace, the great majority of which came into use before any testing was mandated. When EPA was created their testing protocol did not even consider the effects of pesticides on children.
Research of chemical toxicity on lab specimens was extrapolated to consider health effects on an adult male weighing 170 pounds. No thought was given to the toxic effects these chemicals would have on a 60 pound child or 30 pound toddler.
Testing is only done on the active ingredient which may compose as little as 1% to 10% of the total product. The other ingredients are listed as “inert,” when they often contain active compounds, some more toxic than the active ingredient listed on the label.4
Little or no testing is done on the synergistic activity of all ingredients in a marketed product, nor is there any government or industry testing on the adverse or long range effects, or from exposure to multiple products as exist in real life situations.

Carpeting in the Classroom

    In an effort to modernize and quiet down classroom noise many schools now use rugs. However, there is more to carpeting than meets the eye. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by carpet backings and adhesives have been blamed for health problems ranging from nausea to skin irritation.
Synthetic glues and fibers release toxic chemical fumes contributing to indoor air problems. Studies involving carpet installation workers have determined higher levels of leukemia, central nervous system damage, lung, oral, and testicular cancers.
Even small amounts of fumes can cause serious health problems. One study of mice exposed to carpet fumes developed abnormalities of their respiratory, neuromuscular and neurological systems. Many died, and autopsies found kidney damage and lesions in the liver and brain. It didn’t matter if the carpeting was brand new, or twelve years old!5
To further illustrate the serious health risks associated with carpeting, insurance companies are reluctant to grant life insurance to rug installers, who must first sign a release against future cancers developed down the road.
There are several things to be aware of concerning carpeting: 1) the glues, latex backings, and rubber padding are all toxic and off-gas, 2) pesticides used to control carpet beetles may include arsenic and benzene, 3) carpets become reservoirs for tracked in pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxins.6

Symptoms of Pesticide Exposure

    Some pesticides used in school buildings and on playing fields may damage the kidneys or liver, and cause tumors or cancer. It is mind boggling to think about young folks engaging in heavy exercise, breathing heavily, and rolling around on pesticide treated turf at schools, parks, and playing fields.
Additional symptoms of acute pesticide exposure may include headaches, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, vomiting, confusion, memory loss, moodiness, learning problems, hyperactivity, fatigue, sleep disorders, loss of coordination, weakness, skin rashes, and respiratory problems.7


    Asthma is the 3rd leading cause of hospitalization for children in the United States. It is the largest single cause of school absenteeism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma deaths among young adults and children have increased an alarming 118% between 1980 and 1993.8 Meanwhile the incidence of asthma nationwide has increased 73% between 1982 and 1994, according to the American Lung Association of New York.9
A recently passed law in New York State now requires all schools to permit children with asthma to carry their inhalers while in school, with permission from a parent and physician. That this became necessary points to a serious indoor air problem in the school setting.10

Aggressive Behavior

    As mentioned previously, there is very little research looking at the cumulative effects of chemical exposure. However a new five-year study at the University of Wisconsin looked at the effects on mice exposed to a mixture of commonly used carbamate insecticides, the triazine herbicides and nitrogen at levels typically found in drinking water.
Findings showed detrimental effects on the nervous, immune, and endocrine (hormone) systems which has direct implications for humans. If any of these three closely connected systems is damaged, or degraded, it may have an adverse effect on the others.
Observations included interference in thyroid hormone levels, reduced body weight, immune dysfunction and increased aggressive behavior.11
A recent study of four and five year old Yaqui Indian children in Mexico noted impaired mental and physical ability and increased aggression among children exposed to pesticides in the lowland farming district. Yaqui children residing in the upland ranching area with no pesticide exposure did not demonstrate any impairment of developmental skills.12
We are asking why there is an increase in childhood cancer, asthma and violent behavior. Thus far modern science has produced unsatisfactory answers. Like the song about love, perhaps scientists are looking in all the wrong places. More attention should focus on the synergistic effect of multiple chemicals and multiple exposures.

Pesticide Reduction and Alternatives

    Many localities have adopted pesticide policies or programs that require schools to use integrated pest management (IPM), prohibit use of toxic pesticides, and/or provide prior notification of pesticide application. IPM is a process that reduces dependence on toxic chemicals by seeking alternative approaches to dealing with pests by sealing off routes of entry, removing water and food attractants, using natural fertilizer for proper field maintenance, and substituting more natural cleansers and disinfectants.
Because of a growing awareness about pesticide exposure some communities are introducing legislation that will give neighbors advance notice of when a commercial pesticide application will occur. This allows neighbors to take necessary precautions to close their windows, keep children and pets indoors, or leave for a few hours if they choose.
Such a bill had been tossed around the New York State Legislature for three years. In response to the Long Island breast cancer activists the NY Assembly supported a bill which would include notification to parents of daycare centers and school children. The NY Senate not only left these important aspects out of their version, but bowing to industry demands, they decided the bill should be optional for each county within the state.
Rather than suffer another defeat, environmental advocates pushed for passage of the weakened Senate bill (June, 2000) and immediately embarked on amending it to include daycare centers and schools. I mention this to illustrate how “government” often favors the interests of industry over the interests of public health, in this case the health of children.

Location, Location and Location

    With an eye to the bottom line, school districts often purchase inexpensive land upon which to erect school buildings. Such parcels are often located on covered landfills, some highly toxic like Love Canal in Niagara, NY, or on top of an oil field like the abandoned $125 million high school project in Los Angeles. Other sites are situated on old farm land where persistent chemicals may linger in soil, or next to a working farm with seasonal pesticide spraying, or downwind from a toxin-spewing industrial facility.

Invisible Danger from Power Lines

    Another poor choice for locating a school is near high power lines. Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) may be invisible, but that does not mean they are safe Scientific studies are controversial and inconclusive, depending on the source of information.
Most of the studies indicating a health risk have been done outside the United States. Swedish researchers observed a clear dose-response relationship between increasing magnetic-field exposure and the occurrence of childhood leukemia. Children in homes exposed to average power-line fields of more than one milligauss had twice the risk of developing leukemia as children living in homes exposed to fields of less than one milligauss. Children exposed to more than two milligauss had almost three times the risk; and children exposed to more than three milligauss had nearly four times the risk.13
Admittedly, this test was conducted on exposure to children’s domiciles. However, since children spend a substantial part of a day at school, any EMF exposure at the school site might have significant impact on children’s health.
In spite of the lack of conclusive evidence in our own country, there have been many instances when parents, or workers, suspected a problem and initiated investigation on their own. This is precisely what occurred in 1991 at an elementary school in Bolingbrook Illinois, located within seventy to 100 feet of a utility right-of-way containing a 345,000-volt transmission line and a 138,000-volt line.
Engineers from the utility company took magnetic field readings throughout the building. The rooms closest to the power lines had the highest levels, between two and a half to eight milligauss. A week later, engineers from the University of Illinois Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineering recorded a magnetic field as high as 20(!) milligauss in one fourth grade classroom, which had to be evacuated. Measurements taken at another elementary school located several miles away from the power lines recorded ambient fields of as little as .1 and .4 milligauss.14
An informal 1993 survey of the affected school revealed some interesting findings. Out of forty faculty members in the building, seven, whose classrooms were closest to the power lines, developed a variety of cancers, had one baby with birth defects, and one young student died of brain cancer.15
The most frustrating thing is that parent and faculty concerns were ignored by the school administrators, health officials, the EPA, and the utility company. The reason? A threatened drop in property values. This scenario plays out in communities all across America.
A similar problem in Houston, Texas in 1985, had a more positive outcome when a jury found “clear and convincing evidence” of potential power-line health risks and awarded damages to the school district, forcing the utility to relocate their power lines.16
In 1994 an elementary school in Clifton, New Jersey, adjacent to two very high voltage transmission lines recorded magnetic fields between 23.7 and 41.6 milligauss. At about the same time measurements taken by a parent at an early childhood center on Long Island, New York recorded a magnetic field in excess of 90 milligauss! This was later confirmed by engineers from the utility company. It was believed to be caused by a high current cable running through the floor of the classroom.17
Whenever a small independent study shows a possible link between EMFs and health risks, the industrial/scientific community responds by saying more studies are needed. However, little or no grant money is made available to do independent research. On many occasions researchers working with generous grants have had the grants canceled and their positions curtailed if their findings were contrary to corporate interests.
How many childhood leukemias, or latent health problems might be related to EMF exposure in the school or home setting will remain a mystery.

Cell Towers

    As though high voltage transmission lines were not enough of a menace, a new threat looms on the horizon (no pun intended). Cell towers are popping up all over the landscape. The rapidly expanding telecommunications industry finds schools to be very desirable sites.
Offers from telecommunications companies to rent space are very tempting to school districts struggling to balance budgets. Industry reps are quick to point out there are no definitive studies “proving” a connection to cancer. It is not even legal for citizens to raise health concerns regarding placement of cell towers in their communities. Critics point to studies done in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Poland and elsewhere, but are easily dismissed.

Washington Wakening

    It may be a while before progress is made about EMF exposure, but to finish up on a positive note there is something afoot regarding pesticides in the school environment.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the National Campaign Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP) and other environmental/health groups, there is now a bill before congress called the School Environment Protection Act (SEPA), S.1716 / H.R.3275. This bill gives national attention to the urgent need to better protect children from pesticides typically used in schools.
Parents, health providers, and others interested in children’s health are urged to contact their Senators and Congressional Representatives recommending they co-sponsor this bill, or at least support it. More information about the bill is available from NCAMP’s website,, or email,


1. Landrigan, P, et al, Pesticides and Inner-City Children: Exposures, Risks, and Prevention, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 107, Supplement 3, pp. 431-7, June, 1999
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Spitzer, Eliot, NYS Atty. Gen., The Secret Hazards of Pesticides: Inert Ingredients, Environmental Protection Bureau, Albany, NY
5. Deuhring, C., Carpet Concerns, Part Two, Informed Consent, Jan/Feb 1994
6. Ibid.
7. “School Pesticide Fact Sheet: Why take a Chance When Alternatives Work,” New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP), Albany, NY
8. Danserau, C., Protecting Children from Toxic Exposures: A New Emphasis on Children, Alternatives, Vol.16, No.4 Winter 1997, Washington Toxics Coalition
9. Healthy Schools Network NEWS, Winter ‘99, Albany, NY
10. Ibid.
11. Montague, P., Rachel’s Environmental Health Weekly, #648, April, 29, 2000 Annapolis, MD
12. Ibid.
13. Brodeur, P., The Great Power-Line Cover-Up, Little, Brown, & Co., NY, 1995
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
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