Why Growing a Healthy Green School is Golden

green school

Remember dioramas from first and second grade? Last fall I was invited to attend the opening of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Lessons for a Green and Healthy School” exhibit, a giant, life-sized, walk through diorama on how to create a green environment in schools. Located at the Public Information Center of US EPA’s Region 3 offices in Philadelphia, what I learned there about sustaining a healthy school for students, teachers, and community was exciting…and I heard it from the students themselves. [How to Build A Healthy School]

The Green Ribbon Schools Program is a joint endeavor between the U.S. EPA and U.S. Department of Education. The program honors schools and districts across the nation that are exemplary in reducing environmental impact and costs; improves the health and wellness of students and staff; and provides effective environmental and sustainability education, which incorporates STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), civic skills and green career pathways.

A healthy green school is toxic free, uses sustainable resources, creates green healthy spaces for students and faculty, and engages students through a “teach-learn-engage” model. Examples of greening techniques include the using building materials for improved acoustics; installing utility meters inside the classroom as a concrete aid for teaching abstract concepts in math; and incorporating storm water drainage systems within a school’s landscape design to teach and practice water conservation. What are some environmental concerns to address when you are growing a healthy school?

  • Asthma and asthma triggers (indoor air quality)
  • Asbestos and lead (especially in older buildings)
  • Carbon monoxide (from old furnaces, auto exhaust)
  • Water fountains
  • Chemicals in the science lab (think mercury)
  • Art and educational supplies
  • Managing extreme heat
  • Upkeep of athletic grounds
  • Mold, lighting fixtures
  • Waste and recycling

Now more than ever, we must educate new generations of citizens with the skills to solve the global environmental problems we face. How can we have a green future or a green economy without green schools?

Benefits of green schools

1. Cost/Energy Savings:Daylighting” or daylit schools achieve energy cost reductions from 22 percent to 64 percent over typical schools. For example in North Carolina, a 125,000 square foot middle school that incorporates a well-integrated daylighting scheme is likely to save $40,000 per year compared to other schools not using daylighting. Studies on daylighting conclude that even excluding all of the productivity and health benefits, this makes sense from a financial investment standpoint. Daylighting also has a positive impact on student performance. One study of 2000 school buildings demonstrated a 20 percent faster learning rate in math and 25 percent faster learning rate in reading for students who attended school with increased daylight in the classroom.

2. Effects on Students: Students who attended the diorama presentation in Philadelphia expressed a number of ways how their green school changed personal behavior and attitudes. One young lady spoke of how a green classroom helped her focus and stay awake. Another student said being in a green school made them happier. There was more interest in keeping their school environment cleaner by monitoring trash disposal, saving water by not allowing faucets to run unnecessarily, picking up street trash outside the school, sorting paper for recycling, and turning off lights when room were no longer in use. Some students went so far as to carry out their green behaviors at home. Small changes in behavior and attitude such as these are the foundation for a future citizenry who will be better stewards of the environment.

3. Faculty Retention: Who wouldn’t want to be a speech-language pathologist in a green school? Besides, there would be so many opportunities for a therapist to embed environmental concepts in to their session activities. Think how a quieter environment would foster increased student attention. How about having the choice of conducting a small group session in the pest-free landscape of the school yard? Research supports improved quality of a school environment as an important predictor of the decision of staff to leave their current position, even after controlling for other contributing factors.

How to make your school green

  • Have a vision for your school environment. You can start small at the classroom level or go district wide. Focus on one area or many (healthier cafeteria choices, integrated pest management, purchase ordering options, safer chemistry lab) Maybe you already know what environmental hazards affect your school – if you do then start there.
  • Get a committee going. It helps to have friends. Is there someone you can partner with? School nurse, building facilities manager, classroom teacher, PTA, students?
  • Conduct a school environmental survey. This doesn’t have to be complicated, you can poll your colleagues, or discuss at the next department meeting, or over lunch. If you like, check out EPA’s “Healthy SEAT – Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool” for ideas.
  • Have a plan. Select a time frame, short term first and use it as a pilot to evaluate whether a green school is possible. Pick something small to work on.
  • Monitor and evaluation your progress. It’s always a good idea to collect data but it doesn’t have to be too sophisticated. Use “before and after “ photos or video student testimonials.
  • Embed the green environment into the student curriculum and activities. Create speech lesson plans with green materials or photos of your green school project. Growing Up Wild is an excellent curriculum for early childhood educators.

Anastasia Antoniadis is with the Tuscarora (PA) Intermediate Unit and works as a state consultant for Early Intervention Technical Assistance through the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. She earned a Master of Arts degree in speech pathology from City College of the City University of New York and a Master’s degree in public health from Temple University. She was a practicing pediatric SLP for 14 years before becoming an early childhood consultant for Pennsylvania’s early intervention system. Her public health studies have been in the area of environmental health and data mapping using geographic information system technology.  You can follow her on Twitter @SLPS4HlthySchools. 

 

 

 

Just Breathe. Really?

breathing

Easy for you and me to say.  But for 7.1 million U.S. school children it’s not. Childhood asthma rates continue to rise and from 2001 through 2009 those rates were the highest for African American children, almost a 50 percent increase. Asthma accounts for 10.5 million school absences each year. The main trigger of asthma in school children are the same contributors to poor indoor air quality. Yeah, that’s right … open a window.

Air is mostly composed of nitrogen (78 percent) and oxygen (20 percent), air also has about 1 percent of water vapor and tiny amounts of argon and other gases.  For most of us, air quietly passes through our nasal passages into our lungs and out again; taking in the oxygen needed for our blood supply during inhalation and disposing the carbon dioxide by-product during exhalation.  We do this without thought, without effort–unless you are a child with asthma.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease characterized by inflammation of the airways. Recurring symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing.  Asthma develops in childhood as early as 6 months of age and lasts a lifetime.  About one in 12 Americans are living with asthma and over one third of them are children. In adults women are more likely than men to have asthma and more boys than girls among children. Those with asthma pay a huge price, about $3,000 per year per person to be exact. This figure includes medical care, medications, lost work/school days and deaths.

Various triggers not easily controlled can cause an asthma attack such as changes in weather. However, there are other triggers that can be controlled such as the presence of dust mites, roaches, pets, and mold affecting indoor air quality.  Asthma is particularly more prevalent to those living in poor neighborhoods.  A recent episode of NBC Dateline revealed that the childhood asthma rates in East Harlem run at 19 percent compared to the adjoining Upper East Side neighborhood at 7 percent.  They breathe the same New York City air, so what accounts for the difference?

Water leaks, pest infestation and general contract repairs are the responsibility of a rental unit’s landlord. As economically disadvantaged families tend to reside in these units, they are at the mercy of their landlord. Water damage leads to mold; pest infestation carries allergens; both of these conditions create a significant trigger for asthma in children. Even a child without an asthma history may become asthmatic as a result of repeated and chronic exposure to such poor indoor air quality.

School absences are of particular concern; children who miss more than 18 school days are year are more likely to drop out of school. Children with asthma miss more days of school due to their disease compared to children without asthma.  The number of missed days rises with severity—on average a child with severe and persistent symptoms misses 11.5 days of school in a year.  That’s a lot of missed homework and make up speech sessions. Asthma also affects a child’s sleep quality, which in turn affects a child’s ability to pay attention in class and lowers their quality school work.

 What can you do? 

  • Know which children on your caseload have asthma and know how to deal with an asthma emergency, including the location of the child’s inhaler.
  • Take a look at your therapy treatment room or classroom. Are the floors hard wood or are they carpeted?  If hard wood, hooray! If carpeted, make sure they get vacuumed every day and shampooed at the end of the school week.
  • Got pets? If there are in your classroom, better to send them to another home. Animals carry dander that can trigger asthma. If you have a pet at home, make sure your work wardrobe is free of pet hair.
  • Are you working out of a trailer or portable classroom?  These type of environments generally trap moisture than can turn into nasty mold. Make sure spills and leaks are taken care of quickly.
  • Skip the perfume spritz and after shave before leaving the house for work. Fragrances can trigger an asthma episode.
  •  Refrain from fuzzy or scented materials, pillows or upholstered furniture; these can collect dust mites, which are (surprise!) asthma triggers. If the furniture must stay, vacuum it frequently.
  • No clutter!  Cockroaches and dust mites love clutter … and produce more asthma triggers.
  • If your room has a window that faces high volume vehicular traffic, keep it closed during the vulnerable morning hours and cold temperatures.
  • Stay away from phthalate-based toys  as phthalates are known triggers for asthma.
  • Don’t use pesticide sprays in your room.  Go for integrated pest management strategies instead.
  • Like team work?  Collaborate with your school nurse and district’s administration to develop an asthma management plan at your school if one does not exist.  Another excellent resource is to adopt ideas from the IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit.  Work with your district’s transportation department to monitor school bus engine exhaust near open windows.

 

Although asthma is prevalent, with some forethought and preventive measures, it can be controlled. Now breathe a sigh of relief!

Anastasia Antoniadis is with the Tuscarora (PA) Intermediate Unit and works as a state consultant for Early Intervention Technical Assistance through the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. She earned a Master of Arts degree in speech pathology from City College of the City University of New York and a Master’s degree in public health from Temple University. She was a practicing pediatric SLP for 14 years before becoming an early childhood consultant for Pennsylvania’s early intervention system. Her public health studies have been in the area of environmental health and data mapping using geographic information system technology.  You can follow her on Twitter @SLPS4HlthySchools. 

 

 

 

NIMTR: Not In My Treatment Room!

poison

You’ve heard of NIMBY, “not-in-my-backyard” haven’t you?  Well there’s a new acronym, NIMTR or “not-in-my-therapy-treatment-room!”  Speech-language pathologists are inundated by catalogs filled with wonderful colorful, fragrant, pliable toys as treatment materials.  We use these every day with our students, our clients in clinics, our bedside patients.  But how much do we really know about the safety and makeup of those therapy materials your shrinking budget dollars are purchasing every year?

Some interesting facts about toys.

Toys are BIG business. Just visit any mall in America or website such as Amazon.com.  Worldwide, over 80 billion dollars were spent on toys in 2009, with more than a quarter of that money consumed in the United States. The latest figures by the Toy Industry Association Inc., places the annual U.S. domestic toy market at $22 billion in 2012.  Of this, $6.63 billion covers toys and articles for infants and toddlers, puzzles and games, and arts and crafts.  I mention these specific categories because they are materials most likely to be used by SLPs working with young children in early intervention, preschool, or school settings.

So many toys … but are they safe?

The United States imports many more toys from foreign countries compared to its exports. China, Japan, Mexico, Canada and Denmark lead the way in toy imports.  Since other countries do not implement the same environmental protections in manufacturing as we do in the states, the question of safety looms large.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is the main body responsible for overseeing the safety and recall of unsafe toys and products manufactured in or imported into the United States.  In 2012, the CPSC released a new risk assessment tool to help improve the screening of imported products. About 5 percent of the total number of these screenings identified children’s products.  One example: a shipment of 28,000 baby bottles imported by Dollar Tree was seized after determining they were defective and unsafe using the new risk assessment tool. You can read more about the successes of CPSC online.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 made it mandatory for all toys aimed at children under the age of 14 to meet new federal safety standards.  Some of these include testing lead content and concentration of phthalates (DEHP, DBP and BBP* in particular). Here is a video to see how CPSC works collaboratively with other government agencies to seize toy imports that are unsafe for children.

Even though we have protections, toys of questionable safety continue to enter the consumer market.  Recently DNAinfo in New York released this alarming report, which shows many toys in stores tested positive for elevated levels of toxic substances, including phthalates, which have been found to be associated with asthma, birth defects and hormone disruption, among other health problems. One item on the list, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pencil case manufactured by Innovative Design was found to contain 150 times the legal phthalate limit for toys. But alas, currently, it does not qualify as a toy under federal regulations.

What if it is not a toy?

And that’s a good point: Sometimes SLPs use materials in their practice that are not toys. Like the pencil case mentioned above or what about commonly used rubber tubing that a speech-language pathologist may use during treatment for oral exercises?  Would such rubber tubing be considered a toy, a medical device, or something else?  Who oversees the safety of products such as these?

Two organizations responsible for developing standards of safety are the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Switzerland and the American Society for Testing and Materials International  based in Pennsylvania.  Both provide standards to industries that produce just about everything, from iron bolts to bathmats.  Each provides standards for purchase to companies, who in turn use the standards to manufacture and distribute their product to specification.  I contacted both these organizations to find what standards exist for the rubber tubing example.  As of this writing, no responses to my request have been received.

What is an SLP to do?

So what can you do to ensure that the materials you use with your students and clients are safe?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. If you are purchasing from a distributor online, check their website for more information. For example, SuperDuper Publications places a Product Safety statement on their website and invites customers to email them for more information.  Companies who openly provide statements such as these make it easier for the consumer to trust the safety of their purchases.  If you cannot find information on product safety or product testing, email the company and ask for it.
  2. Check the CPSC’s website for toy and product recalls. You can find the latest recalls, search for recalls by product name or by country of manufacture, and also report an unsafe product.
  3. Read the manual! Electronics such as iPads and tablets come with a manual that will often provide the ISO or ASTM Int’l standard used to insure safety and will list potential hazards.
  4. Contact the manufacturer of the product and ask for the MSDS – materials safety data sheet.  This would be a good choice if the product you have or consider purchasing lacks a manual or an information sheet on standards testing.  You also can look up a product by name and manufacturer on the MSDS website. On this site a search for “rubber tube” gave me 34 hits.  While searches can be daunting and time consuming, the insurance of safety provides peace of mind to you and the clients on your caseload.
  5. Avoid buying inexpensive toys or materials from questionable sources such as street vendors.

Informed SLPs can now approach their materials purchases with a new savvy.  Next time you are tempted to buy inexpensive therapy materials composed of questionable ingredients, just say “NIMTR”!!!!

 

Anastasia Antoniadis is with the Tuscarora (PA) Intermediate Unit and works as a state consultant for Early Intervention Technical Assistance through the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. She earned a Master of Arts degree in speech pathology from City College of the City University of New York and a Master’s degree in public health from Temple University. She was a practicing pediatric SLP for 14 years before becoming an early childhood consultant for Pennsylvania’s early intervention system. Her public health studies have been in the area of environmental health and data mapping using geographic information system technology.  You can follow her on Twitter @SLPS4HlthySchools.