School Children at Risk

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Eye from Albany
July/August 2001

School Children at Risk
by Paul M. Bray

As I write this column it is May in Albany. The sun is shinning and the flowers are blooming after a grayer than normal winter. In the sunny spirit of the day I called Clair Barnett from the Health School Network, recipient of the US Environmental Protection Agency?s award from EPA?s Administrator Christine Todd Whitman for significantly improving environmental quality in the past year.

With this award in hand and legislative successes last year in New York State on pesticide regulation and Washington on earmarking $1.2 billion for school health and safety repairs, I expected Barnet to feel like she was on top of the world. Instead of being cheery, Claire when I spoke with her was ?sputtering? over inaction so far in this legislative session and what she called the ?callous indifference to the health of kids? by the Regents, State Commissioner of Education and some local school districts.

Education is clearly near the top of the public agenda. President Bush has made education particularly with regard to performance a priority of his administration and addressing issues of guns and violence in schools have driven some over reacting schools to be operated like what appears to be a prison lock down. Yet, the danger to student health of many of our schools has not received the attention it should have. In fact, President Bush in his budget plan proposed removing the earmarking of the $1.2 billion from health and safety repairs to allow school districts to use the funds for items like technology.

The dangers to student health today, for example, from indoor air pollution ranging from dust and mold to pesticides and hazardous chemicals like pesticides, solvents and toxic cleaning detergents are at epidemic levels. One in thirteen school-aged children has asthma, a leading cause of school absenteeism. A 1995 Government Accounting Office study found 25% of the nation?s schools to have serious air pollution problems. Barnett points to a survey of New York state school nurses that found that ?71 percent knew of children in their building whose health and learning were compromised due to indoor air pollution.?

The impact of indoor air pollution is more serious to children than adults because children breathe more air per pound of body weight and have less ability to detoxify environmental exposures.

So why has healthy schools gotten the priority attention it deserves? The reasons are many. In part it may be because we still haven?t as a society been willing to fully pay the price for a good quality, healthy, green environment. So we continue to accept higher than healthy levels of pollution, emission of gases causing global warming and sprawl because as President Bush stated over climate change, we don?t want to endanger our economy. Yet, one would think that we draw the line with children and go the extra mile to assure them a healthy learning space.

And then there is government going on political overload. Even though schools are becoming safer from violence, all it takes is a couple of shooting to command our political institutions to go into overdrive. The matter of school performance is less an issue of improving the quality of education for all students that a battle ground over political ideologies for and against vouchers, charter schools and testing.

Where is the room for dealing with the simple of matter of guaranteeing environmentally healthy schools? Neither school districts nor the State Education commissioner want it on their already crowded plate. For the legislature, healthy schools which is falls under too many jurisdictions or turfs: education, environment and health is an issue that simply can?t get the traction it requires. This year Barnett?s priority legislation like A. 6623 and A. 5192 sponsored by Assemblyman Englebright, repsectively, on parent notification for environmental health and safety hazards in schools and asthma prevention at school have not been introduced in the Senate. Although I have heard some signals that the Senate Majority may come up with a bill addressing asthma prevention. Of course, what is really happening this year in the legislature is the lull before next year?s pre-election legislative session when when the legislators have that impetus to produce.

In fact, as Barnett will admit, there are a number of laws and procedures for school facility report cards and school health and safety committees if enforced would go a long what to protecting the health of students. Wouldn?t it be nice at least when it comes to the health of children that the nonsense of government could be laid aside and all public institutions that have something to do with schools could show that we can have the healthiest schools possible.