2 Things Parents Can Do to Dramatically Improve School Air Quality (& Your Child’s Health)

Is the air quality in your child’s school making students sick?

Marilee Nelson’s son, Douglas, was dramatically affected by pesticide exposures at school. In December 1989, at age ten, he was exposed to high levels of pesticides, which devastated him mentally and physically. Doctors offered no hope of recovery from the extreme chemical injury and declared that he would be like a “bubble boy” for the rest of his life. Through the study and application of principles that addressed the environment as well as using “Food as Medicine”, Douglas fully recovered and went on to graduate from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He then served in the Naval Aviation Intelligence Community and now lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and three children. Marilee’s experience of his recovery from this extreme exposure has largely been the impetus for Branch Basics as an educational vehicle for others.

Branch Basics 2 Things Parents Can Do To Improve School Air Quality

Does School Air Quality Matter?

By the time a child graduates from high school, he or she will have spent over 14,000 hours in school.1 Unfortunately, over half the nation’s school children will spend those hours in classrooms with poor air quality. According to a 2011 EPA study, over 50% of the nation’s 115,000 schools have air quality issues caused by mold, pesticides, lead, asbestos, and toxic cleaning products.2 Exposure to these has been linked to: lower test scores, higher absenteeism, behavioral issues, asthma, ADHD, depression, headaches, and more.3 To make matters worse, researchers have found that children are even more vulnerable to indoor air pollution than adults.4 As parents, you have the ability to dramatically improve this situation by focusing on two major contributors to poor school air quality – cleaning products and pesticide use.

2 Common Sources of Poor School Air Quality

Toxic Cleaning Products 5

Conventional cleaning products may contain toxic chemicals such as preservatives or antimicrobials (EPA registered pesticides), triclosan, fragrance, alcohol ethoxylate surfactants, nonylphenol ethoxylates, addictive inhalants, formaldehyde, quaternary ammonium compounds, ethanolamine, petroleum by products and many more. These ingredients are all immune suppressors that may be classified as asthmagens (can promote asthma development in healthy people), endocrine disruptors (hormone disruptors), carcinogens (cancer causing), and neurotoxins (poisons that act on the nervous system).6

Pesticide Use 7

Pesticides are designed to kill. Conventional and green pesticides (like pyrethrins from chrysanthemums) are one of the most dangerous class of chemicals you or your child could be exposed to. They have been linked to cancers, birth defects, endocrine disruption, neurological disorders, behavior and learning disabilities.8

Health Issues Caused by Toxic Cleaning Products & Pesticides

Fifty-five million Americans (not just students, but teachers and staff too) are spending their weekdays in elementary and secondary schools that may have poor air quality.9 Poor indoor air quality contributes to many health complaints, including asthma, which is the leading cause of chronic disease in children and the leading reason for absenteeism in schools. Altogether, asthma is the reason for 14 million school days lost each year.10 Studies have linked asthma to many air quality issues including cleaning products and pesticide use in schools.11 However, asthma is not the only consequence of poor air quality in schools. According to air quality studies0.., there are numerous problematic effects associated with poor air quality.12

Poor air quality in schools has been linked to:13

  • increased absenteeism (primarily from asthma)
  • decreased student achievement (lower reading scores)
  • headaches
  • respiratory infections
  • eye, nose and throat irritation
  • asthma
  • allergic reactions
  • fatigue
  • depression
  • exacerbation of behavioral and learning difficulties like ADHD

What a Parent Can Do to Improve School Air Quality

Thankfully, many pioneers have blazed a nontoxic trail that makes it much easier for parents today to take action at their local schools. The support system is substantial and the precedents being set at participating schools provide incentives and motivation for schools contemplating these changes. Don’t be afraid to get involved and make a difference!

The Healthy Schools Network, formed in 1995, was one of the earliest organizations to support parents in their mission to create healthy schools.14 They have provided guidance for not only parents, but also have served as a model for the creation of other support organizations. As many as half of American schools have air quality issues created by cleaning products, pesticides, mold, lead, and asbestos. In reaction to this shocking information, many “green” programs and associations have formed – devoted to the cause of improving conditions in schools.15 Thankfully, step-by-step curriculums designed to assist parents in cleaning up schools now abound across the country.

Here are a few ways you can make a big impact on the school air quality and improve the health of your child and his or her classmates and teachers:

1 – Educate Yourself About School Air Quality Issues

2 – Educate Other Parents at Your Child’s School

3 – Join a Network of People Fighting for School Air Quality

4 – Introduce an Air Quality Improvement Program to Your School

  • The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) Green Flag School Program is a three-level system that helps you improve school air quality by addressing cleaning products, Integrated Pest Management, and environmental sustainability. The Green Flag Program works with the PTA and other parent and teacher organizations at the local, state, and national level.

Branch Basics 2 Things Parents Can Do To Improve School Air QualityWhat Makes the Biggest Impact On School Air Quality?

As a parent, you are able to help make the greatest impact on the environment where your student spends so much time each day by focusing on two issues that are common to all schools: cleaning supplies 16 and pesticide use.17 Each school is unique, but I recommend focusing your attention on making sure non-toxic cleaning products are used and that a non-toxic pesticide program replaces all harmful pesticide use.  These changes will result in an immediate improvement in the air quality, and therefore improve the learning environment.

Helping Your School Switch to Nontoxic Cleaning

Step 1: Educate Yourself About Nontoxic Cleaning

  • Did you know that in 2009 the EWG did an analysis of common cleaning products that are used in schools? They found that 10 of the top 20 cleaners contained at least one of the chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive or developmental toxicity. Read more about this issue in The Toxic Truth About School Cleaning Supplies, by the Green Schools Initiative.

Step 2: Educate Other Parents About Nontoxic Cleaning

  • Share information in Step 1.
  • The Green Clean Schools program provides clear statistical support for transitioning to nontoxic cleaning products. They also outline the simple steps a school can take to make big changes. I highly recommend reviewing and sharing their downloadable brochure as well (5 steps to green cleaning).
  • The Green Flag Program  for Non Toxic Cleaning by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). Wonderful step by step program for parents that guides parents through the assessment process and implementation of a green cleaning system.

Step 3: Educate  the School Administration About Nontoxic Cleaning

  • Share information in Step 1.
  • ABM (a facility management services provider) makes a compelling, evidence-based case for nontoxic cleaning solutions in schools: Green Cleaning Programs Get High Scores.
  • Present Case Studies of cost savings and other benefits of green cleaning

Helping Your School Switch to Nontoxic Pest Control

Step 1: Educate Yourself About Pesticides

Step 2 Educate Other Parents About Nontoxic Pest Control

  • Share information in Step 1.
  • The Green Clean Schools program gives a simple overview and explains the five basic steps necessary  to implement an IPM program.
  • The Green Flag Program  for IPM by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). Wonderful step by step program for parents that guides parents through the assessment process and implementation of an Integrated pest control program.

Step 3 Educate the School Administration About Nontoxic Pest Control

  • Share information in Step 1.
  • Beyond Pesticides created Achieving a Healthy Learning Environment Through Integrated Pest Management, which covers case studies about IPM use across the country. Look for an example of a school in your state! They’ve also created a fact sheet about how using IPM methods is cost effective for your school.
  • Looking for more economic proof that switching to IPM is a good decision for schools? From Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City, more schools are finding that IPM is Less Costly than Pesticide Service. One Arizona school case study found that converting to IPM “resulted in a 90 percent reduction in applied pesticides, maintaining pest populations at 85 percent below their previous levels and costing no more than traditional programs.”

The Power of the Parent

The EPA has declared that all Americans have a Right to Know about the chemicals that they are exposed to daily. Right to Know laws include disclosure of cleaning products and pesticides used in your school buildings. Finding out this information can be extremely helpful to you as you help the school choose nontoxic options and improve overall school air quality. As a result of parental awareness, schools around the country have made the switch to healthier practices that reduce harmful chemical exposures at schools. This has resulted in improved attendance, health, and student performance. Increased attention to this issue has also led to positive outcomes for the teachers, staff, and administration who work in the schools each day.18

Parents today have a wonderful opportunity to make informed choices for their growing children that promote health and well being. When my son Douglas was recovering from pesticide exposure, I didn’t even have access to the internet to do any research. People were relatively in the dark compared to the amazing educational resources, networks, and other support available today. That is right where I was (in the dark), when my son was critically injured in elementary school. Before that happened, I had no idea that I needed to check out “safe materials” for school supplies or that I even needed to think about what went on at school beyond his education. It’s my hope that you learn about the problems with school air quality and do what you can to spread the word to other parents and the school administration. So many kids are able to breathe easier thanks to parents like you!


Branch Basics Marilee Nelson The House DoctorsMarilee Nelson is an Environmental Consultant, Building Materials Specialist, Certified Baubiologist, Certified Baubiology Inspector, and Board Certified Nutritionist. Her research and experience with clients around the country ties acute and chronic illness with exposure to environmental stressors – chemicals in air, food and water and the increase in exposure to electromagnetic fields. She is dedicated to educating people about how a nutrient rich diet coupled with an environment free of products with synthetic chemicals is foundational to health.


Further Reading

The Branch Basics Smart Guide to Safe School SuppliesIn our last newsletter we looked at how important it is to Choose Nontoxic School Supplies

Can you think of all the pesticides in your home? You may be surprised at how many you will find. Learn how to remove all toxic pesticides from your home in 8 Simple Steps. If you’re thinking about helping your schools eliminate harmful pesticide use, try out the Integrated Pest Management principles at home. We’ll show you how!

If you’re sending a college student off this fall, don’t let them leave for school without reading tips from our college student interns: 6 Tips for Cleaner College Living – Advice from Our Interns

Do You Know What’s In Your Laundry Detergent? You might be shocked to find out the answer!

Additional Resources for Concerned Parents:

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