Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Public Health Stops at the School House Door

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Public Health Stops at the School House Door

Article excerpt


Children are required by law to attend school in the United States; many parents voluntarily send their children to preschool or child care centers.

Environmental health threats in child care centers and in prekindergarten to 12th grade (PK-12) schools compromise children's health and learning; yet there is no federal, state, or local agency that is authorized, funded, and staffed to protect children in these settings from environmental health hazards.


Lack of Data and Data Sharing Hampers Children's Health Protection

There is no systematic collection of environmental health data on children attending child care or PK-12 schools by any state or federal environmental, health, or education agencies (Paulson and Barnett 2010). Without timely, accurate information, child health and facility health issues cannot be identified or tracked, improvements cannot be documented, and appropriate policy cannot be formulated.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA 2000) governs data collected by school employees, which can include health data from school nurses or other school employees (ASTHO 2012). The FERPA restrictions make data sharing more difficult than even the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA 1996).

School Building Environmental Hazards

Environmental health hazards in schools have been documented in the media in a number of places in the United States (Martin 2012; Stevens 2013; Zaniewski 2016; Purcell and Graham 2013).

Many school buildings in the United States are old and in poor condition. Recent data indicate that 53% of reported schools need to do repairs, renovations, or modernization to bring buildings into good condition. In addition, environmental factors were rated unsatisfactory or very unsatisfactory in 5-17% of permanent buildings and 10-28% in portable buildings (Alexander and Lewis 2014).

All buildings can have a myriad of indoor and outdoor environmental problems (Table 1).

Lack of Legislation and Regulation

There are few laws or regulations governing indoor environmental health or other aspects of environmental health in schools (see Environmental Law Institute, and Therefore, many environmental problems are unaddressed or left to voluntary programs, many of which were established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Table 2); however, the U.S. EPA has had significant budget cuts, which have affected these and other programs.

Do Green Buildings or Good Environments Support Health and Academic Success?

A National Research Council (NRC) committee concluded that six factors support child and teacher health, learning, and productivity: a dry building with good indoor air quality (IAQ) and thermal comfort that is quiet, clean, and well maintained (Committee to Review and Assess the Health and Productivity Benefits of Green Schools 2007). Another committee concluded that conventional "green buildings" may not protect human health (IOM 2011).

Excess moisture can lead to mold and bacterial growth and degrade building materials. Some of the chemicals released as a result are allergens, irritants, and toxins (Committee on Damp Indoor Spaces and Health 2004). As documented by Purcell and Graham (2013), the presence of these chemicals in the air are associated with multiple health symptoms and complaints as well as short- and long-term health problems among occupants.

Research has shown that poor IAQ has negative impacts on children's performance in school. The recommended ventilation rate is 15 cubic feet per minute (ANSI/ASHRAE 2013); but many schools do not meet the recommendation (Shendell et al. 2004a; Jenkins et al. 2004; Shaughnessy et al. …

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