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La pathologie scolaire

L’école peut être un lieu dangereux pour la santé des enfants. Contrairement aux adultes, la réaction de certains enfants aux diverses émissions toxiques qui circulent à l’intérieur des écoles peut être très grave. D’après les recherches menées jusqu’à date, la qualité de l’air peut être la cause des difficultés d’apprentissage de certains enfants, peut produire des irritations de la peau, peut endommager le système respiratoire et, dans les cas extrêmes, peut mener au cancer.

Témoin clé des méfaits du contenu de l’air, Patty Donovan a vu la santé de son garçon dégringoler suite à une violente réaction à un ingrédient compris dans le vernis qui était utilisé sur les planchers de son école. Au comble de sa maladie, il a perdu l’usage de sa mémoire à court terme et à oublier comment lire. Les produits dangereux ont été remplacés par des produits sains et sa santé, en plus de celle de plusieurs enfants, en a été grandement améliorée.


Is your child's school
making them sick?

A guide to making it healthy again

    Patty Donovan
    Quispamsis Environmental Committee

    January 1999


i.gif (173 bytes)ndoor air quality has become one of those catch phases that is on everybody's mind. We are all worried about it, we know something is wrong with the air inside our children's school buildings, but are unsure about what damage it causes and how to fix it. "Children are, in a sense, moving targets. Exposures which may be unnoticed or be relatively harmless in an adult, can be potentially devastating to a child," and for that reason alone we need to be aware of the potential risks to our children's health.

"... children's school buildings..."

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(photo: NBEN-RENB)

Research suggests that poor air quality can cause everything from learning disabilities to skin rashes and respiratory dysfunction to Environmental illness, and in extreme cases death from cancers. In my personal case I have seen the damage first hand. My son developed Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), also known as Environmental Illness, after chronic exposure to a neurotoxin (a toxic substance that acts on the nervous system ) called Naphthalene that was the main ingredient in a floor buffer used to shine the halls in his Elementary school. He suffered from body rashes, nose bleeds and blisters, headaches, muscle aches, became dyslexic, lost the use of his short term memory and forgot how to read. Many factors contributed to his ill health; however, Naphthalene was the final straw that pushed his little body over the edge and gave him MCS. In this article it is not my intention to scare or blame but to share some of the information that I have found helpful in making his school healthier, which has enabled him to return to class full time and begin the process of relearning.

There are many factors that affect the indoor air quality of any building and what is ailing one school may not be the solution for another; however, this is meant as a guide to help you look at your school, rooting out potential problems.

The first question to ask is, "Are there any toxic chemicals in the air?" The way to find this out is to look at:

- cleaning supplies - ask if they are Environmentally Friendly and unscented, or do they contain Volatile Organic Compounds, such as Naphthalene, Phenol, Chlorine, Formaldehyde and Benzene? These chemicals can be found in most cleaning solutions and even in the handsoaps in schools. They may also contain scents derived from nuts and non-organic compounds, as well as dyes. Each school must have a list of all cleaners currently being used and have an up-to-date Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on each that lists ingredients and hazards. You should be concerned about any deodorizers used in bathrooms or staffrooms because they are very toxic. All cleaning supplies should be kept in a well ventilated and locked area during school hours.

- pesticides - the list of problems caused by exposure to pesticides is too great to effectively list in this short article; however, they have been banned in School District 6 and 8 in New Brunswick and are considered to cause serious health impairment in our children. (For more information on the misuse of pesticides I urge you to contact the Sierra Club of Canada at  or at (613) 241-4611.)

- scented personal products -
cologne, detergent and fabric softener on clothing, and personal hygiene products, such as hairspray, makeup and body lotions, contribute significantly to poor air quality. There are over 5000 chemicals registered for use in personal products that work either in combination, or individually, on the immune system. Schools should be scent free!

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- emissions from photocopiers, faxes, laminating machines and computers - although I am not an expert on this, I have read that there are over 200 different chemicals off-gassed when using these office systems. They should be kept away from children and areas that children have access to. Computer labs, for example, must be well ventilated because many of these devices give off ground level ozone, among other chemicals.

- school supplies off-gassing -
out of all of the things on the list, this one may surprise even the very sensitive. Chemicals such as vinyl chloride are off-gassed constantly from school supplies, such as erasers, markers, white-out, plastics and notebooks. Before sending a child to school these supplies should be aired, and/or non-toxic (i.e.. markers and art supplies).

The next thing to think about is bus emissions. Busses are kept running while children are boarding and unloading to enable the lights to flash. Although we need the lights for the safety of our children, to have them walk through a haze of exhaust and sit on a bus filled with petroleum fumes is unhealthy and can cause a variety of problems from headaches to respiratory distress. These emissions are carried into the school via air exchangers, open windows and doors, and on children's clothing. They are circulated throughout the building during the day and breathed into still-forming lungs. The best solution would be to find a way to keep the lights flashing without the busses running.

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If the air systems are old, dirty, clogged and not functioning properly they can not do their job. The things to consider here are: are all of the exhaust fans working properly, are the lines clean or full of dust and mould, are the filters changed on a regular basis and do they adequately filter out toxins, is the uptake air vent in an appropriate place to get clean air, is the outside air that is being brought into the school healthy and are those lines clean and free of debris, and is the air system adequate for the size, shape and student capacity of the school? Do the windows in the school open to allow fresh air to come in? In my son's school we have scheduled window openings each day where every window in the school is opened for a period of time to allow fresh air in and get stale air out.

One thing that is not often determined is what level of dust and moulds exist within a building and how they can effect air quality. Schools are notoriously dusty, and the mites cause many problems for students because they are easily absorbed through the skin and breathed in. A few ways to combat dust is to seal ceiling tiles, remove carpeting, use flooring without cracks, keep open papers and files down to a minimum (for example, papers can be stored in stackable containers on shelves that are easily wiped off), dust mop after children have left the building if at all possible, and wet mop floors more often, and keep the school clean. Moulds, on the other hand, are not quite as easy to remove and their effects on health are well documented. Their spores can travel on, or through, almost anything. They are very hard on the lungs of children and cause a multitude of problems from headaches to disturbances in children's motor functions. Moulds are caused by a build up of moisture and poor ventilation. Check for any leakage of water or areas where moisture can be trapped. A further source for mould growth is winter clothing that is constantly damp and not laundered. One more question to ask is if the air system is capable of handling the extra winter moisture brought in to the school? Winter mitts, boots and snowsuits should be dried each night at home and regularly laundered to keep mould growth at bay.

An additional area of concern is, what is in the building materials used for renovations and what are they off-gassing into the air? Pressed boards off-gas formaldehyde, new flooring off-gasses vinyl chloride, not to mention the glues, waxes and finishes used, and paint off-gasses petroleum products, among other chemicals. The list of worries from building materials and floor finishes are endless. The main thing to remember is that all renovations should be performed while classes are not in session, within reason, and with the least toxic materials.

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When you look at all of these issues working together it is no wonder that our school buildings are sick and with them our children. I have seen first hand what poor indoor air quality can do to a child, but I have also seen what can happen to the same child when the a school is healthy. My son's school is cleaned with Environmentally-
friendly cleaners, pesticides have been banned, the air system was fully cleaned and serviced, he is in a non-toxic and scent-free classroom and he is doing wonderfully. His grades have improved, his health is better and he is an all-round happier guy. Working with the School District has been to the benefit of all the students and staff. Puffer use has been cut in half, reports of headaches are diminishing rapidly, staff and students are awake and better able to cope and learn and the level of achievement of all students has increased.