Allergies : School Buildings Can Make You Sick

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.

"We wanted to look at communities with a needier population, if possible, because we know there's a correlation between [neediness] and the ability of a district to stay on top of these [environmental health] issues," he said.

The districts were given the tasks of assembling a working group of stakeholders: teachers, administrators, parents and facility staff. Now, the task is to educate the educators.

"This is a complex issue that involves the eyes and interests of a lot of people who have a willingness to learn about the topics," Mr. Ellsworth said. The education process -- via presentations by Mr. Ellsworth and his assistants -- has begun.

The next step is to split the districts' committees into groups assigned to do building walk-throughs.

"It's actually a two-fold goal: it's part assessment and it's part of the education process. It's not just us coming in and looking things over and saying what needs to be done. It's letting the stakeholders in the district see what there is to see," he said.

Once the assessments are finished, priorities will be set, followed by a task list.

Mr. Ellsworth said he hopes the to-do lists are together by the end of the school year with implementation of proposals to begin in the fall.

While some issues that could arise may involve construction and costs, others could be done virtually for free.

"A to-do list could have tasks as simple as making sure that the classroom space is as tidy and neat as possible. That ensures that there's nothing blocking ventilators and air flow which means less dust. A tidy room also means it's easier to clean and provides a more distraction-free environment," he said.

Another easy thing to do he said, would be educating staff on minimizing the use of fragrances such as air fresheners and perfumes and switching to a "green cleaning" program that uses environmentally friendly cleaning products.

"School districts are very busy educating students and doing more with less. This initiative isn't about blame. It's about doing what we can do to make things better in a place that can impact a child's ability to learn," he said.

The ultimate goal is to develop a program that will be a model for districts across Pennsylvania.

McKeesport Area superintendent Timothy Gabauer said in a statement: "Providing our students with a learning environment that is healthy and safe is one of our utmost priorities. We are looking forward to partnering with the Healthy Schools Collaboration to assess our current practices and implement changes that will create a healthier environment for our students and school community."

Cheryl Griffith, superintendent of the Allegheny Valley district, referenced her region's longtime connection to environmental issues. "The Allegheny Valley area was home to Rachel Carson, who 50 years ago wrote 'Silent Spring,' a book that is widely credited with launching the contemporary environmental health movement. We are proud to honor Rachel Carson's legacy by partnering with the Healthy Schools Collaboration to improve our children's health."

Caren Glotfelty, senior program director for The Heinz Endowments, was quoted in a news release as saying that "research shows that environmental health has not been top-of-mind for many of our local school districts."

She continued, "Implementing some relatively simple changes can dramatically improve the learning environment. We hope that the work of the Healthy Schools Collaboration will lead to an increased knowledge of the importance of environmental health, and we encourage school districts across the region to follow the lead of McKeesport Area and Allegheny Valley."

Karen Kane: or 724-772-9180.

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