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Healthy Schools

  • InHealthy Schools, Non-toxic Home

    6 Ways to Avoid Toxic Chemicals in Public Schools

    Schools are busy places— dealing with budget cuts, mandated testing, and meeting the needs of all students who walk in the door.  Many schools have crumbling, old facilities, and this can lead to unsafe conditions for students and teachers alike.  Here are some ideas for helping your child stay safe and healthy at school.

    1.  Many schools are making such good progress towards healthy meals.  Where I work, a public elementary school, the chefs (they are chefs!) use whole wheat flour, serve local greens, and grass fed beef.  But there are still some problem spots, such as BPA exposure from canned foods, and some factory farmed meat such as hot dogs are still served.

    Select hot lunches from the calendar that feature the most local and least toxic foods.  For example, our school makes homemade macaroni and cheese.  I know that at this meal there are usually no canned foods served– the pasta is boxed, and the rest is made with cheese and milk.  These are not organic dairy sources, but they don't use rBGH and there is no BPA from canned goods, and no factory farmed (aka: cafeteria mystery meat).

    Then, sign on to or start your own nutrition committee.  That way, you can collaborate and help make healthful changes in your school community.

    2.  Keep the air clean.  Ask teachers to use low odor dry erase markers, and to skip the toxic, smelly cleaning spray (water works just fine!).  They'll be healthier and happier too.  Make sure the school is using safe, non-toxic cleaners as well. What if they're not?  Schedule a time to chat with the school nurse and the principal about changing this.  They want the children to be healthy, too!

    3.  Ask for recent air quality tests which can determine if there is a mold problem.  This is a problem that plaques many school and can cause devastating health effects. I wrote about this problem in my book Why Great Teachers Quit.  In our school, a test for air quality gave us important information and guided decision making.

    4.  Give your child's teacher a plant.  Plants help clean the air, and with all the old equipment, dust, and germs at school– a plant can help clean the air a bit.  Here is a good list of which plants work better for this purpose.

    5.  Make sure there is no bottled water for sale at your child's school. Bottled water is terrible for the environment and more unregulated for pollutants than tap.  Also, students are exposed to the plastic the water comes in contact with before they drink it.

    6. Check to see that your school has a no idling rule. This is crucial for the air quality surrounding the school.   According to Hamilton County Environmental Services,

    The pollutants found in exhaust not only affect our environment, they also affect our health. PM is the name for tiny particles, such as soot, dust and dirt, found in the air. When inhaled, these small particles travel deep into the lungs and sometimes into the bloodstream. Inhaling PM can:

    • aggravate asthma
    • cause coughing or difficult breathing
    • decrease lung function
    • exacerbate cardiovascular problems and
    • lead to chronic bronchitis

    What can you do?  If your school hasn't started an anti idling campaign, you can download a free brochure about how to do it here. The brochure is filled with facts about air pollution from idling and helpful tips for starting an awarness campaign at your child's school.

    What about you, readers?  What are your tips for making schools healthy and safe for everyone?

    Expert Guest Author

    Katy Farber is an author, teacher and blogger.  She writes the blog Non-Toxic Kids, which features green parenting news, environment issue reporting, opportunities for activism, and book, music, and eco-friendly product reviews.  Her newest book, Eat Non-Toxic:  a manual for busy parents was just released and is available now at Non-Toxic Kids.

    photo credit: USAG-Humphreys Soccer – Army Youth Sports and Fitness – CYSS – Camp Humphreys, South Korea – 111001 via photopin (license)

  • InHealthy Schools, Lunch Gear

    Top 5 Reasons Your School Should Go PVC-Free

    Did you watch CNN’s “Toxic America” a little while ago?  If so, you got an unsettling look at the world of PVC manufacturing and its effects on the surrounding neighborhoods.  It was exciting to see the underbelly of PVC production exposed to the general public after years of searching for safer alternatives.

    For many of you, Toxic Towns was a realization that sent you reeling back a bit.  Where is PVC found and is it really that unsafe? Doesn't the removal of phthalates mean it's fine to use? Those are great questions, and my favorite advocate for safer alternatives to PVC, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), has compiled a down and dirty list of convincing reasons for moving away from vinyl (#3 plastic).

    CHEJ's Take on Why PVC is Toxic

    Many children’s school supplies, such as lunchboxes, backpacks and binders, are often made out of PVC—an unnecessary toxic plastic that is dangerous to our health and the environment across its lifecycle: from production, to use, to disposal. Cancer causing chemicals that contaminate the air and water of surrounding
    communities are used to produce PVC. When PVC is manufactured or burned, numerous dioxins are formed and released. Dioxins are a highly toxic group of chemicals that can cause cancer, and harm the immune and reproductive systems. These and other toxic chemicals released during the PVC lifecycle contaminate our bodies and may pose irreversible life-long health threats.

    Why Shop for PVC – Free School Supplies?

    PVC is unique among plastics because it containsdangerous chemical additives. These harmful chemicals include phthalates, lead, cadmium, and/or organotins, which can be toxic to your child’s health. What’s worse is the danger these chemicals pose- phthalates and other toxic additives can leach out or evaporate into the air over time posing unnecessary dangers to children. Over 90% of all phthalates are used to soften or plasticize PVC products. Children are at risk from even small exposures to these toxic chemicals. That’s why it’s important to purchase PVC-free school supplies.

    Top Five Reasons for Avoiding PVC

    1. Children are more at risk from toxic chemicals: children are not “little adults” – their developing brains and bodies, their metabolism and behaviors make them uniquely vulnerable to harm from toxic chemicals such as those released by the PVC lifecycle.

    2. Production of PVC involves cancer-causing chemicals: PVC products are made from toxic chemicals. Three chemicals are at the core of PVC production: chlorine gas is converted into ethylene dichloride (EDC), which is then converted into vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), which is then converted into PVC. Both VCM and EDC are extremely hazardous. Vinyl chloride, the key building block of PVC, causes a rare form of liver cancer, and damages the liver and central nervous system iii. Vinyl chloride is one of the few chemicals the U.S. EPA classifies as a known human carcinogen. EDC is a probable human carcinogen that also affects the central nervous system and damages the liver.

    3. PVC products often contain toxic additives such as phthalates, lead and cadmium: many of these additives are not chemically bound to the plastic and can migrate out of the product posing potential hazards to consumers. In some cases, these additives can be released from the product into the air inside your home. Lead has been used to stabilize and is found in many different PVC products. PVC flooring and other PVC products can contribute to poorer indoor air quality as PVC products can off-gass chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

    4. School children, teachers and custodians may be at risk for asthma and autism: Asthma is a serious, sometimes life-threatening respiratory disease that affects 7 million American children and 16 million adults. An average of one out of every 13 school-age children has asthma. In fact, asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism: 14.7 million school days are missed each year due to asthma. In recent years, a number of studies have found a correlation between phthalates emitted from PVC building products and asthma. Yet another study published in 2009 even found a statistically significant link between PVC flooring, asthma, and autism.

    5. PVC and hazardous chemicals are in our babies and bodies: in recent years, a growing body of scientific evidence has found that toxic chemicals released by the PVC lifecycle are trespassing into our bodies. Today babies are being born pre-polluted with potentially harmful levels of phthalates and dioxins that may possibly cause lifelong health problems. Phthalates have been found in indoor air and dust, and in human urine, blood and breast milk. An extensive study of 2,500 individuals found metabolites of at least one phthalate in 97 percent of those tested. Dioxins build up in our bodies over our lifetime and can remain there for many years. The levels of dioxins in our bodies are at or near the levels known to cause harm.

    Take steps to remove PVC from your child's school by educating yourself and the members of your school board. CHEJ's PVC-free Back to School Guide is the easiest place to start!

    P.S.  Looking for safe lunch gear options?  Crocodile Creek, Laptop Lunches, Fuel Kids, EcoLunchboxes, Lunchbots, Lunchsense and Fresh Snack Packs are BPA, PVC, phthalate and lead-free options made by manufacturers we know and trust.

    photo credit: 藍川芥 aikawake My World via photopin (license)