Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Effort Aims for Healthy Schools

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Effort Aims for Healthy Schools

Article excerpt

For the second-grader with asthma, a teacher wearing a little too much perfume or a classroom that has a layer of dust can produce a stay-at-home sick day as easily as a cold virus.

And just because smoking is prohibited in a high school doesn't necessarily mean the building is free of air pollution.

Issues of indoor health with school buildings are moving to the center of the blackboard in two local schools districts that are partnering with an endowed initiative known as the Healthy Schools Collaboration.

Allegheny Valley and McKeesport Area have taken their places at the front of the class when it comes to a burgeoning effort to assess the healthiness of school buildings and then to develop and implement a to-do list that will make those buildings models of healthy practices.

The effort is the result of an inquiry funded by the Heinz Endowments and led by the Inregion Sustainability Consulting firm, based in Highland Park. Owner Andrew Ellsworth, known as the "collaborator" for the work, said the pilot project is in its second phase -- the culmination of an undertaking that began in March 2011.

The first phase involved research centering on the fact that 20 percent of the nation's population -- students, teachers, and facilities staff -- spend significant portions of time each week in school buildings.

Guided by the belief that sustainability should not just be taught but also lived, Mr. Ellsworth thought school buildings seemed to be a good place to begin creating "an environment that embodies good environmental practices."

This project is not about reducing carbon footprints and electricity bills, although those are worthy endeavors in the world of sustainability.

It's about environmental health and creating spaces that are safe and healthy for children.

"What we found is that there are others who are pursuing best practices when it comes to [sustainability issues like green space and energy savings]. But, in this region, we weren't finding a focus on environmental health in school buildings. It's going on in other regions of the country, but not here. We're bringing something new to the region," Mr. Ellsworth said.

Some of the key concerns in environmental health center around air quality, lighting, acoustics, building materials and exposure to chemicals, fragrances and contaminants.

The initial steps involved research on topics as varied as mold and dander, pesticides, and chemicals in furniture and cleaning supplies.

"It was a matter of pulling together the information that would outline what a safe building is supposed to be about," he said.

The next step was gauging the interest level of school districts in the region. Why schools? "They're so important because we know we have an opportunity to have a big impact. So many of us spend so much time there," he said.

His research established a foundation for the belief that a poor indoor environment can be directly correlated to health problems. "Water infiltration can lead to mold which can lead to allergies," he cited as an example. Allergies can lead to missed school days, which can lead to poorer academic performance.

In September 2012, the project surveyed 110 school districts across the region, gauging the districts' environmental health challenges, what they would like to know about the issue, and whether they would be interested in participating in the pilot project that was pending.

The response rate to the survey was about 20 percent. Of those responders, McKeesport Area and Allegheny Valley were selected to participate in late January or early February.

Mr. Ellsworth said factors in selecting the participants included stability of leadership, ability to take on the initiative, and the financial wealth of the district. …

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