RX for Sick Schools

By Kim Rice, EHC-Dallas


In Irving, Lively Elementary third-grader Josh Jackson liked school, but it didn’t agree with him. Headaches and stomach pain plagued his little body when he was in the building; he withdrew emotionally in the classroom and his grades were in a downward spiral. At home, he was fine. Less astute parents might have written it off as a psychological problem, but his father, Mark, who had allergies and sensitivities of his own, began to suspect something in the school environment was at fault. To check out his theory, he collected an air sample from the facility and took it to a local physician, who developed it into an allergy-type extract. When tested with the substance, Josh re-experienced the same symptoms.

Jackson asked Irving I.S.D. to help him identify the sources of the indoor air quality (i.a.q.) problem. The district’s response, Jackson says, was an enthusiastic "How can we help?" After the initial research, they did everything that he recommended: removed shampoo from the carpets, cleaned the air system’s duct work and filters, replaced cleaning chemicals with borax and put an air purifier in the classroom. Four years later, Josh, who was held back after his disastrous third-grade year, is in the math and English honors program and regularly ranks in the top percentile in standardized tests. Jackson gives credit to the school district. "They were able to help resolve my son’s problems cost-effectively and didn’t brush it under the rug," he said. "And it benefited all the kids."

The district was so gung-ho, in fact, that this year Irving’s Brandenburg Elementary will serve as the pilot for the new "Tools for Schools" program, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.). It will also implement the guidelines for indoor air quality currently under development by the Texas Department of Health (T.D.H.). So far, the school has set aside a budget and developed a management plan, trained teachers and staff, educated parents and is taking a detailed look at every aspect of the building for indoor air quality. Following this intense inspection, it plans to do whatever it takes to be in compliance with the E.P.A./T.D.H. programs. Some of the changes may include substituting less-toxic cleaners, removing carpeting and cleaning air ducts.

Jack Rambo, Assistant Superintendent of Irving Schools, says the district expects concrete results from their efforts. "The two things we think will show up with better indoor air quality are improved attendance and decreased discipline problems with students," said Rambo. He explains that when children have allergy problems , they often become more active and have difficulty concentrating. "If we have better attendance and their attention span is focused on what is going on at school," Rambo said, "then the teachers can take care of test scores improving."

The T.D.H. expects similar results. "Bottom line, with implementation of the guidelines, I expect the attendance, grades and test scores to improve in schools where bad indoor air is a significant problem," said Quade Stahl, Chief of the Indoor Air Quality Branch. He says that the Department is focusing on the "sick school", because they consider it a serious issue. "In my experience, there definitely is a problem with Texas schools not having good air quality," he said. "We’ve looked at more than 220 schools that have requested the Health Department’s assistance in the last decade, and over 90% had some degree of i.a.q. problem."

But Stahl emphasizes that i.a.q. is an issue for all Texas schools, not just "sick" ones. "I think all schools should definitely implement the guidelines," he said. "We will be glad to help and assist them with their questions."

Could your child’s school be sick? Here’s a look at some courageous parents and administrators who discovered that their schools were and what they did about it.


What Makes a "Sick School" Sick?

In 1996, the U.S. government published a report asserting that millions of children attend schools with unsatisfactory environmental conditions. In Texas, it said, 16% of schools have poor ventilation and 12% have unacceptable indoor air quality. E.P.A. studies show that indoor levels of pollutants may be two-to-five times, and occasionally more than 100 times, higher than outdoor levels.

Over the past several decades, buildings have been more tightly sealed and ventilation rates have been reduced to save energy, all the while the use of synthetic building materials, pesticides and toxic cleaning supplies has increased. Whereas the ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers ), standard for indoor air is 15 cubic feet per minute per person, some schools, experts say, have dropped that level to as low as 5 c.f.m.’s to lower energy costs. Schools are especially prone to problems because budget restrictions and taxpayer pressure frequently result in the purchase of construction materials and building products that are cheap and more likely to be toxic.

This was the case for Wimberly Schools.


New and Nasty

In 1984, after the chemicals in her new suburban Chicago home made her and her family ill, Sue Pitman moved to Wimberly, a small town just southwest of Austin, Texas. The Texas Hill Country seemed to offer the perfect clean-air haven for a family that had become sensitive to many chemicals, pollens, dust and molds. But after her son reacted to pesticides sprayed on the playground, and her daughter became sick while the school was painting her classroom, Pitman began to work to educate the school system on the dangers of poor indoor air quality.

When the school board proposed building an elementary school made of particle board, which is replete with formaldehyde, a respiratory irritant and carcinogen, Pitman railed at board meetings. While the district made some compromises, they basically stuck by their plan, also carpeting each room. When the first day of school rolled around, dramatic things began to happen. Children wheezed and broke out in rashes, one boy experienced grand mal seizures, that had heretofore been under control. Visiting parents were sick. "Someone called the media, who took pictures of parents yelling and screaming at school officials," said Pitman. Everyone panicked but, she says, little was actually done to correct the problem. Over a few month’s time, a survey showed that of 18% of parents felt their children were having problems in the school. Pitman says that 30—40 families left town because the district wouldn’t address the problem. Some parents who left say their children have been permanently damaged by their exposures.


The Deadly Invader—Mold

At W.A. Porter Elementary in Haltom City (near Fort Worth), mold was the culprit. After years of trouble with a leaky roof, Birdville I.S.D. moved to solve the school’s problem, only to uncover a bigger one—the stachybotrys mold, a dangerous toxin and potential killer that had recently made national news headlines. Parents panicked. Birdville I.S.D. Communications Officer Robin McClure says the school reacted quickly and proactively. "We hired an indoor air quality expert, used HEPA vacuums daily and installed humidifiers," said McClure, whose co-workers have nicknamed her the "mold queen" for her intense work in the area. "At W.A. Porter, we have spent $500,000 alone to make sure that parents have no concerns." Fortunately, experts said, the mold, found in two isolated areas, was never airborne, thus the students and staff were not in immediate danger. But the mold incident motivated Birdville to make indoor air a priority at all of their schools. "We said to the community, ‘If you have any problems with your child’s school, let us know, and we will have it inspected,’" said McClure. Ten to twelve campuses have since been checked out, she said, and reports have been made public.


Toxic New Carpeting

For Ryan Campbell in Garrison, Texas, a "sick school" meant toxic new carpeting. Ryan entered the 5th grade as a normal, healthy child. Almost immediately, he complained of nausea and, as the weeks went on, he became more and more ill with symptoms like diarrhea, headaches, low-grade fever and swollen glands. "I started thinking about what was different in the school," said Rhonda Campbell, "and they had painted and put down carpeting in the hallways." Medical tests revealed high levels of formaldehyde in Ryan’s urine and, when they tested the carpeting, they found it contained the same toxic chemical. Ironically, even though Ryan’s father sat on the school board, the district refused to address the problem. After arguing with the school for three years, and keeping him home during that time, the Campbells finally sent Ryan to a private school in Nacogdoches, where he is doing well.


Pesticide Problems

In Conroe, Rebeka Perrella walked into her son’s school and could smell the pesticides sprayed on baseboards the night before. The school had waited until the children arrived the next day to air out the school. Her son was sick for two days with headaches, flu-like symptoms and light-headedness. "I knew my son was sensitive," she said. "But I never thought the school would do anything that dumb." She proposed the use of Integrated Pesticide Management (IPM), which uses least toxic pest control methods, with an emphasis on mechanical and preventative means, using pesticides only as a last resort. Conroe I.S.D. implemented the system with much success, but other issues, from painting to re-tarring the roof during school, are causing Perrella to again raise concerns. She thinks her efforts will benefit all of the children. "People think it’s a small percentage who are sensitive, but a lot of times children are reacting and don’t know it," said Perrella. "Most doctors will say they just have an allergy or a cold."


A Wide Array of Symptoms

In her "Contaminated Classrooms" workshop, Safe Schools consultant Irene Wilkenfeld describes these as symptoms to look for: hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, short-term memory loss, chronic headaches, anxiety, frequent mood swings, unexplained changes in hand-writing or drawing, dark circles under the eyes and/or skin rashes. Other experts add flu-like symptoms and learning disorders to the list. Dr. William Rea, director of the Environmental Health Center - Dallas and chapter author of The Healthy School Handbook, says that "sick schools" can do lasting damage to a child’s health. "Potential long-term effects include the children physically becoming incapacitated, failing in school and being drugged to control the symptoms, for example, with cortisone-type medications for asthma," he said. Experts say that those who already have a chronic illness, like asthma, or a pre-existing health problem, like Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.), are more likely to respond with more symptoms that those who do not. In Dallas I.S.D. alone, there are 700-800 children with asthma.


Parents Make the Difference

All of the parents profiled in this article have one thing in common. Even when the schools themselves didn’t respond, these persistent folks have made progress for Texas school children in general. Mark Jackson has been an advocate for the development of the Irving School District’s program. Sue Pitman in Wimberly started a national organization to help sick schools and her efforts are partially responsible for the new indoor air guidelines for schools that the T.D.H. will present this year. Rebeka Perrella’s determination resulted in a 1995 law requiring all Texas schools to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) instead of standard pesticide spraying. Ryan Campbell’s parents appeared earlier this year on Channel 8’s "Good Morning Texas" along with safe schools expert Dr. Doris Rapp to issue a plea for schools to address the problem.


What to Do About a Sick School

If your children have the symptoms described here, if your school has telltale signs of being "sick," or if you want to become involved on a preventative basis, the stories of these parents can be an encouragement as you approach the school. Your first step should be to contact the E.P.A. and request information on their "Tools for Schools" program. They have a brochure for parents and a detailed packet for schools. Second, send away for information available through the organizations listed under "resources" and read one or more of the books listed there. Next, approach your school or school district, information in hand, and offer to work with them to start an indoor air quality program. Dr. Doris Rapp, author of Is This Your Child’s World? How You Can Fix the Homes and Schools that Are Making Your Children Sick suggests reminding school officials that "if appropriate changes are made, the need for (and cost of) home teaching, special education for select students and absenteeism should decrease. At the same time, academic performance should improve, along with the attendance and health of both students and teachers."


Looking for a Few Good Schools

The Indoor Air Quality Branch of the T.D.H. is moving rapidly to address the problem of the "sick school." The department’s indoor air quality guidelines for Texas schools, now in draft form, are expected to finalized and distributed by late winter. They are also looking for four-to-six schools in different districts so serve as pilots, like Irving I.S.D., to try out the new guidelines. (The pilot program is designed determine how best to implement the T.D.H.’s

guidelines and to measure how effective the they are.) Interested schools should contact the T.D.H. in Austin.

I.A.Q. Branch Chief Quade Stahl says the T.D.H. also plans to get some federal assistance. "We are currently applying for an E.P.A. grant to provide funding for the development and implementation of the guidelines as well as some radon testing," he said. "This will go to approximately 1,000 school districts in Texas."

Dr. Stahl is enthusiastic about potential results of the programs. "I’ve heard many anecdotal stories where parents said their kids went from failing to having significant improvement, even to becoming honor students when the indoor air was improved," he said. "Some went to A’s and B’s from D’s and F’s."

Mark Jackson, Josh’s father, gives his futuristic vision of the healthy school. "Build the school right, don’t put in things that will cause problems and maintain it correctly," he said. "Generally, it’s all common sense." Those parents who wonder if, in the I.S.D. bureaucracy, good sense will win out—take heart. Of all the difficult problems faced by schools as this millennium comes to a close, making and keeping them healthy is possibly the most easily solved.



_ U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—Joyce Stanton—214/665-6444

_ Texas Department of Health Indoor Air Quality Branch—800/572-5548

_ Safe Schools (Workshop for schools and video)—318/984-2766

_ Environmentally Sick Schools—a videotape by Dr. Rapp—(800)787-8780

The following publications listed are available locally through the American Environmental Health Foundation at 214/361-9515:

_ Is This Your Child’s World? How You Can Fix the Schools and Homes that Are Making Your Children Sick by Doris Rapp

_ The Healthy School Handbook—Edited by Norma Miller, Ed.D., a publication of the National Education Association

To join an IPM Network:

_ National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides - 202/543-5450

For information on developing healthy schools in Texas:

_ The Vanguard - 512/338-1108



To buy products for the chemically sensitive see http://www.aehf.com.
For more information on medical treatment see http://www.ehcd.com.
For more articles on the relationship of health and disease to environmental factors, see the list of available articles and other information available here.