Children are more vulnerable than adults to harm from toxic chemicals for many reasons, including their smaller body size and the fact that their brains and bodies are still developing. Certain environmental health risks including chemicals found in the school setting are linked to childhood cancer, asthma, learning disabilities and other health effects. Indoor air quality and environmental health issues can have a great impact on the learning outcomes for students.Some great resources can be found for schools, teachers, parents and students on the following websites:
- Indoor Air Quality EPA Resources Tools for Schools
- Healthy Schools Network, Inc.
How Are Children Exposed to Toxic Chemicals in Alaska’s Schools?
During a day at school a child may be exposed to harmful chemicals from multiple sources, including:
- Pesticides unnecessarily used indoors
- Pesticide residues and other chemicals in cafeteria food and snacks sold at school
- Synthetic chemicals in cleaning products
- Pollution from idling cars and diesel exhaust from school busses
- Arts and crafts and other school supplies
Pesticides in Alaskan schools
Alaska Community Action on Toxics worked with the Anchorage School District, the largest in Alaska, to adopt a least-toxic pest management policy. We continue to support their efforts through participation in regular meetings with the administration. ACAT also promotes state legislation that would protect Alaska’s school children from harmful pesticides, toxic chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, and other chemicals found in schools.
When ACAT staff talked with pest managers at School Districts throughout Alaska we found that public schools have used insecticides indoors primarily to control rodents and cockroaches, but also silverfish, earwigs, and ants. No schools reported using pesticides on athletic fields or playgrounds.
Schools in Fairbanks, Ketchikan, and Anchorage use pyrethroid based insecticides, especially cyfluthrin (active ingredient) and also deltamethrin and cyhalothrin. While generally believed to be low-toxicity, pyrethroids are suspected hormone disruptors, carcinogens and reproductive toxicants. They are known to be neurotoxic at higher exposures and may cause tingling and tremors.
Abamectin has been used in the Anchorage School District to control cockroaches. This active ingredient is associated with birth defects such as cleft palates and is considered a reproductive toxicant by the EPA and the State of California.
Chemicals in cafeteria food and snacks sold at school
Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables may contain harmful pesticide residues. Certain organochlorine pesticides that are ubiquitous in the environment and break down very slowly build up in animal fat and can be found in some meat and dairy products. Children may also be exposed to the chemical bisphenol-A which is used in the epoxy resin lining of canned goods and can leach into foods.
Chemicals in cleaning products used in schools
Certain ingredients found in cleaning products may be hazardous to health. ACAT looked into the cleaning products used in the Anchorage School District and found that the ingredients in two of the cleaners are suspected toxicants. Ethylene glycol is a suspected toxicant of these body systems: cardiovascular/blood, developmental, endocrine, GI/liver, kidney, neurotoxicant, reproductive, respiratory, skin/sense organs. Sodium metasylacate, another ingredient found in cleaning formulas used in the Anchorage School District is a suspected GI/liver toxicant.
Pollution from idling cars and busses
Parents often let their cars idle in front of schools while waiting for their kids on cold Alaska winter days. When vehicle exhaust enters school buildings through doors or vents, children and others inside may breathe polluted air. Benzene and toluene are solvents found in gasoline. Benzene is known to cause cancer. Research suggests that it can also induce diseases of the blood. Long-term exposure to toluene has been linked to mucus membrane irritation, intoxication, an increase in spontaneous abortions and other adverse health effects.
Diesel exhaust from idling busses is another concern for school children and workers. Inhaling diesel exhaust particles can induce inflammation of the respiratory tract, and increase the incidence of wheezing, bronchitis, and asthma hospitalization.
Some art and craft supplies are toxic, and are especially unsafe for children. Be sure to send your child to school with safe arts and crafts supplies.
View our Art & Hobby Supplies to learn more.
In addition, school binders, backpacks, and lunchboxes may be made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) plastic. PVC is dangerous to health across its lifecycle: from production, to use, to disposal. Dioxins, a highly toxic group of chemicals that can cause cancer, and harm the immune and reproductive systems, are used to produce PVC and are released when PVC is manufactured or burned. PVC also contains dangerous chemical additives including phthalates which are synthetic chemicals used to soften plastic. Children are at risk from even small exposures to phthalates.
Download the Center for Health, Environment & Justice’s Back-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies
How Can Parents and Students Make Their Schools Safer?
- Promote the adoption of least-toxic pest management policies. To view a sample, download the Anchorage School District policy .
- Support the purchase of organic foods for cafeterias, vending machines and student stores
- Investigate the packaging used for cafeteria foods. Bisphenol-A is a harmful chemical used in the lining of most canned goods.
- Check to see if the soap used in school restrooms contains triclosan and advocate for safer alternatives.
- Start an organic school garden, such as the Organic Peace Garden at Steller Secondary School in Anchorage to demonstrate that there are effective, safer alternatives to pesticides.
- Engage in projects that raise awareness about harmful contaminants and demonstrate safer alternatives.
- Use safe alternatives for treatment of head lice rather than lindane or other toxic products. See ACAT’s report Lindane: Pharmaceutical and Agricultural Alternatives (April 2009)
- Download Sick Schools 2009 – America’s Continuing Environmental Health Crisis for Children , a report by Healthy Schools Network, Inc.