ADD, ADHD, Depression, and learning disabilities seem to plague children in the current educational system. More children are taking medication for these conditions now than they ever have. The purpose of the medication is to “fix” what is ailing the child, and create an environment where they can learn. Perhaps it is the environment that needs fixing and the medication is only helping to deal with the symptoms that have been created by the environment.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air quality can be responsible for a variety of situations, including illness and acute health symptoms that can may decrease performance while in school. Indoor air quality has been linked to a child’s ability to complete mental tasks, such as memory, concentration, and calculation. The indoor pollutants that may be responsible may include particles (i. e. , dust) or contaminants (i. e. , molds). Indoor air quality is most commonly affected by the presence of moisture causing mold growth or other deterioration, animal and other biological allergens and combustion products.
Other risk factors for respiratory health effects include: moisture or dirt in air filter systems, low ventilation rates, formaldehyde, chemicals in cleaning products, and outdoor pollutants or vehicle exhaust. Health effects of a toxic environment contribute to absence from school, which further inhibits learning and performance in school. Respiratory infections and asthma, are the illnesses closely associated with increased absenteeism. “In fact, asthma-related illness is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, accounting for over 14 million missed school days per year. (Moglia, 2006)
Current research has suggested a direct correlation between air quality and student performance. A European study of 800 students, from 8 schools provides data on indoor air quality, health symptoms, and students’ ability to concentrate. In the study, carbon dioxide measurements were taken in the classrooms and students were given a health symptom questionnaire. A computer-based program scored their ability to concentrate. Carbon dioxide itself is not a health threat at levels typically found indoors, but when outdoor air ventilation rates are low, carbon dioxide levels and other pollution levels are not diluted as much and
therefore also tend to be high. Results indicated that the students were affected by carbon dioxide levels increased. This finding suggests that reduced ventilation rates (and higher indoor pollution) is associated with a decreased ability to concentrate along with increased adverse health symptoms. (Moglia, 2006) The EPA reports that ventilation rates in most schools are below recommended levels, both in the United States and in Europe. A California study revealed that one third of the schools had ventilation rates that were less than half the recommended levels. This, combined with the
prevalence of low ventilation rates suggests that there is a great deal to do to improve the indoor air quality of schools. “Experts contend that thousands of schools nationwide harbor environmental threats that may be placing students, teachers, and staff at risk. In addition to toxic molds, such threats may include indoor air pollution, exposure to pesticides, effects of overcrowding including disease transmission, exposure to toxic chemicals from building materials, noise pollution, and the hazards of old and crumbling school infrastructure. ” (Wakefield, 2002) Wakefield sites that
almost 14 million children attend schools with environmental concerns. The threats, similar to other studies, included “exposure to molds and toxic fungi, pesticides, and volatile organic chemicals emitted from cleaning products, photocopiers, and classroom furnishings. Radon gas and other outdoor pollutants also can enter school buildings. And airborne asbestos from insulation and lead released from paints and other building materials during renovation or repair can pose threats to health. Faulty heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems only exacerbate air quality problems. ” (Wakefield, 2002)
Persons inhabiting these buildings may experience a wide variety of physical symptoms that may include nervous system effects, headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems. Some studies suggest that these indoor pollutants may be responsible for an increase in physical conditions, such as asthma and infectious respiratory diseases. Building maintenance, or lack thereof, is a likely contributor to the change in indoor air quality. “About one-third of school buildings require major repairs or out-and-out replacement, according to a 2000 report by the National Education Association (NEA) entitled Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost?
On average, the nation’s public schools are more than 40 years old, which means more and more will need repairs in the next decade. More than $320 billion will be needed to bring schools up to standard nationwide, estimates the NEA report. The figure includes $268 billion for infrastructure and the remainder for technology upgrades. ” (Wakefield, 2002) In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of students who attend schools that were built within a half-mile radius of a known contaminated site, putting them at increased rink for developing diseases linked to environmental pollutants such as asthma, cancer, and learning disorders.
An increase in the population in some areas, has led to a need to create “portable classrooms. ” These classrooms are reportedly more likely to be built from hazardous materials and more likely to have poor ventilation. (Wakefield, 2002) Wakefield also reports a significant effect of poor lighting on children’s ability to learn. Children spend large amounts of time in artificial lighting and as a result, may be missing out on some of sunlight’s benefits. Case studies reported by the Healthy Schools Network, show the benefits of “daylighting,” or creating classrooms with “full-spectrum lighting.
” A two-year study of six schools in Johnston County, North Carolina, compared children attending schools with full-spectrum light with those attending traditionally lit classrooms. Students in full-spectrum light were healthier overall and missed fewer days in school. “A study of students in Capistrano School District in Orange County, California showed that students in classrooms with the most natural light progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% faster on reading tests in one year than those with the least amount of daylight. ” (Wakefield, 2002)
Studies show that a majority of schools still use pesticides that are known to cause cancer or adversely effect the nervous, hormone, or reproductive systems in and around school buildings. In California alone, 93% of 46 school districts surveyed used pesticides and 87% use hazardous formulations with known health effects. There are no federal requirements for schools to reduce children’s school-based exposures to pesticides. In a home setting, the most significant toxins found are lead and pesticides. Lead toxicity affects the brain and neurodevelopmental processes, and the effects are irreversible.
Lead paint dust is identified as a primary source of exposure in homes. In the United States, 17% of low-income children have blood lead levels higher than a level that is considered safe. Even at quite low levels, the damaging effects of lead can be detected. (Taylor, et. al. , 2004) Exposure to some pesticide toxicants can be frequent and at high levels due to cockroach and rodent problems in inner-city areas. A study completed in New York City documented widespread pesticide use, and in the case of diazinon, the exposure for some women may have exceeded healthy levels based on the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reference dose.
Eighty-four percent of the women questioned as a part of this study reported that pest control measures were used in the home during pregnancy. (Taylor,, et. al. , 2004) Current studies have focused on the number of schools that are taking action to improve the indoor air quality. Of those schools surveyed, 42% were implementing a program to address indoor air quality. IAQ programs do not appear to be distributed evenly between public and private schools. The survey results indicate that nearly 50% of public schools across the nation have a program to manage IAQ. However, only 20% of private schools appear to have an IAQ program.
Respondents were asked if they believed their Indoor Air Quality program led to any associated benefits. The most frequently reported response was an improved work and learning atmosphere. Improved health status of students was noted, as indicated by fewer asthma attacks, less frequent visits to the school nurse, and lower absenteeism, as reported by 28-33% of schools that have an Indoor Air Quality program. Among those schools that did not yet have an effective program to address indoor air quality, they reported a lack of funds and competing priorities as barriers. (Petronella, et. al. , 2006)