Green Schools and Student Health

On February 19th, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had fined six school districts in Arizona for asbestos violations.  The 25 schools involved were issued fines in excess of $94,000 for not inspecting their schools and failing to have a plan to manage the presence of the toxic minerals. 

For those who may not know, asbestos is actually a group of naturally occurring minerals that exist as thin fibers. This physical structure has made asbestos an ideal component for insulation, flooring, roofing tiles, and all manner of construction materials. As you might imagine, when many of the schools in our country were being built, asbestos was used as soundproofing, insulation, and even in concrete — even though we have been aware of the carcinogenic effect for decades. 

So as difficult as it is to read that more than 15,000 kids in Arizona have potentially been exposed to asbestos, it’s not all that surprising. Certainly, those in charge in the AZ schools should have been following the letter of the law to protect their students, but shouldn’t we be asking why our kids are attending schools where they have to worry about whether the air they are breathing is full of cancer-causing particles?

Thankfully, we can see change on the horizon. 

Last weekend, several members of the Earth Day Network team attended the 3rd Annual Green Schools National Conference in West Palm Beach, FL. We were fortunate to meet with teachers and administrators from around the country who are all in various stages of working toward being a green school. Some were there to begin researching how they take the first steps toward creating a healthier and more sustainable school, learning how cost effective it can be to switch out the harsh cleaning chemicals for greener options and how to create a school garden.

Also in attendance were several model green schools — the schools who are leading the way, showing what kinds of transformations are possible. One of those was an elementary school in Washington, D.C., where students, teachers, parents and community members have come together to completely redesign their school. Not only is the physical building now LEED certified and geothermal powered, but teachers are using these new green characteristics of the building to design learning experiences and curricula for their students.  Students use real-time data to calculate how much energy is being used, and they germinate seeds in classrooms for planting in the school garden.

While a school like this stands in stark contrast to the buildings those students in Arizona have to attend, it gives us hope that change is possible and reminds us why the green schools movement is a challenge worth meeting.