Asthma attacks, wheezing, itchy eyes – Sarah’s little boy kept coming home from school sick. She tried everything she could to make him feel better: trips to the doctor, antihistamines, cleaning the house top to bottom. His grades began to suffer because he needed sick days. But Sarah noticed something strange. Her child became better and more energetic whenever he stayed home sick – only to come back home from school the next day worse than ever.
When you send your child to school, you expect the school to help them grow and learn. It doesn’t occur to most people that the very place that should help students learn might be hurting them. The problem? Bad indoor air quality.
Schools, underfunded and pressed for resources, are often crumbling messes of old building materials, pests, coughing heating systems, moldy carpeting– even the cleaning materials used by janitorial staff are often full of strong chemicals that leave residue on surfaces and find their way into the air.
Imagine for a minute your child’s school at the end of the day. After being sealed up with all those pollutants for the entire day, the front doors are thrown open to the cleansing outdoor air for a few precious minutes – but the doors open straight onto a line of diesel -pumping yellow school buses, idling in the front loop.
How does bad air quality hurt kids?
These pollutants don’t just disappear. They stay in the air, where they are breathed in by teachers and students all day long. These particles make their way into students’ lungs, irritating and inflaming them. The result? For some students, chronic allergic reactions. For many more, the irritation constantly triggers asthma attacks and other breathing problems, over and over again. In fact, children exposed to bad air quality for extensive periods of time can develop asthma , even if they didn’t have it in the past.
If you still doubt the importance of air quality for learning, consider this: the EPA says that improved ventilation raises student test scores by 14-15%. Concentration and energy suffers when poisons are running through your body. Then there’s the fact that asthma is responsible for more absences than any other chronic illness. Study after study shows that students who miss school regularly get worse grades and test scores.
Because kids’ bodies are still developing, they are at much higher risk of health problems when they’re exposed to pollutants in the air. That makes the healthiness of their environment extra important.
New building? New dangers
Is your child’s school building new? Don’t assume that means it’s safe. Consider all of the materials and supplies that go into a new building – particle board, laminated flooring, sealants, paints, and new furniture.
These modern materials are capable of leaching chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In fact, when these materials are new, the chemicals they give off are at their strongest. VOCs can make people dizzy, disoriented, and tired. That’s not exactly the best state for learning. People are starting to recognize this problem as “New Building Illness.” Studies show that new buildings require at least a year of constant airing before they’re safe, longer if they’re closed up tight.
If many students and teachers start to develop symptoms after a change in the building or routines, look to the physical environment to see what might be causing it.
What can a parent do?
If you’re worried about the effect the school building is having on your child’s allergies and health, don’t worry! There’s a lot you can do by drawing attention to the problem, having a little persistence, and some support.
1. Talk to other parents. Are they noticing similar problems? They may not have made the connection yet that the school’s physical condition is responsible for students’ health problems. You’re always stronger working together. Is someone a PR expert? Does someone else have a brother on the school board? Find out what your allies’ strengths are and use them.
2. Find out what your school district’s air quality policy is. Because of the increase of asthma in children in recent years, many schools have an asthma control plan, or even an indoor air quality committee. Does your school? If yes, get involved. If no, figure out how to start one. The PTA is a great resource to work with here.
3. Remind school officials that health is directly related to school performance. School officials have a lot on their plate, and they may resist change because it sounds like it will take resources away from academics. Show them the research that shows that test scores and teacher retention rates go up when physical conditions improve. Schools lose money when students don’t show up to class; remind them that asthma is a major cause for school absenteeism.
4. Figure out your school’s problems and how to fix them. Is the school damp? Infested? Uses too many chemicals? Target any structural problems or practices that need to be changed, long-term. If the problems are extensive, look into getting air purifiers. Some sellers, like AirPurifierSource.com, offer discounts to schools.
5. Make sure your own home is clean. Give your child some relief when they’re at home. Investigate contaminants in your own home, whether they are mold, chemicals, or dust mites, and come up with a plan for keeping your air pure.
Don’t give up!
Many school districts, from Texas to Maryland, have successfully improved their air quality. Often concerned parents were the key that made the difference. Look to their examples for ideas. Remember, your child’s health and academic success are worth it.