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Environmental Hazards in School Buildings

When your child seems unwell, it may not be due to germs. The cause could be environmental hazards in the school.

Environmental Hazards in School Buildings

Safety Savvy

Students should know how to evacuate a bus in case of an emergency. Ask if your school's bus drivers conduct drills so kids won't be confused if they ever have to make an escape.

If you send your child to school healthy but he frequently comes home sick, it might not be just the latest germ that's going around. Parents at a few schools have found it's the school building that's the culprit.

One Congressional report estimated that as many as one in five schools has unsatisfactory air quality. Some children can suffer reactions to anything from chemicals used for cleaning or bug control to mold caused by leaky roofs.

Many factors contribute to bad air in schools: construction of tightly sealed buildings, reduction of ventilation to save energy, lack of maintenance, and use of synthetic building materials and furnishings, to name a few.

Safety Savvy

A few states are taking steps to regulate air quality or pesticide use in schools, but there is no federal requirement or agency responsible for insuring that schools have clean air. To find out what your state does, contact the public health department. If no one's taking the initiative in this area, you and other parents might consider lobbying your state legislators.

How to Diagnose an Unhealthy Building

The tricky thing about contaminated air is that it may produce symptoms in just a small percentage of students and staff, so the cause may go unnoticed.

If your child frequently has symptoms similar to a cold, an allergy, or the flu—and if your doctor has eliminated other causes—watch your child to see if the problem clears up on the weekends. Another sign is when people with asthma or allergies have more reactions to these conditions when they are inside the school building than outside it.

If you suspect the problem is at school, contact the principal and request an air quality test. If school officials don't respond to your concerns about school air contamination, canvas other parents or faculty to find out if others are having symptoms. If they are, you can raise the issue as a group with your parent-teacher organization.

Safety Savvy

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in cooperation with the National Education Association and other school-related groups, has developed an “Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit.” It's free to schools, and individuals can purchase it for $22. Most of the kit can be downloaded from the EPA's Web site at You also can purchase the kit and get other information by calling 800-438-4318.

Pesticides in School

Because their young bodies are still developing, children are more susceptible than adults to harm from pesticides and other lawn-care products. Some schools are employing firms that use safer alternative pest control methods. Find out what precautions your school takes.


Many schools still contain asbestos because it once was used so widely in insulation, ceiling tiles, and other building materials and it's not easy to get rid of. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations require that schools containing this hazardous air pollutant have regular inspections and file reports on the results. The reports are available to the public.

Removal of asbestos is considered the last resort. It's costly and must be done by experts because of the danger in handling the material. The alternative is regular observation and maintenance or, if necessary, containment. The EPA has issued guidelines for schools to use when dealing with asbestos.

Unsafe Drinking Water

Occasionally, schools are found to have contaminants such as lead in the drinking water. Lead pipes in older buildings can be one of the culprits. All schools should have their water tested periodically.

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