By Austin Sears, HSC Communications Intern
Today, many environmental issues are front and center in our minds. Recycling bins are almost as common as trash cans and reusable shopping bags have become increasingly popular. However, there is one issue that we can’t see and often gets pushed to the back of our minds: air pollution and its effects on our health. And while air pollution undoubtedly affects us all, children are particularly vulnerable and suffer disproportionately from the impact of dirty air.
A recent article published by Health Affairs draws attention to air pollution and its link to student health and academic performance. The study focused on public schools, the levels of pollution in the areas surrounding them and how these factors affect students. The findings showed that many schools in Michigan were located in places with high levels of air pollution coming from industrial sources. The study also found that while 44 percent of white students in the state were affected, 82 percent of African American students and 62 percent of Latino students were affected, results that show that children of color are more at risk than other students.
Here are some more of the study's findings:
"...schools located in areas with the highest pollution levels also had the lowest attendance rates (a potential indicator of poor health) and the highest proportions of students failing to meet the state’s educational testing standards.
A recent survey of Michigan school superintendents verified that land availability and cost are a major consideration in school siting decisions. When the superintendents were asked to rank various considerations in school boards’ decisions about where to locate new schools, the two most important considerations were the availability of land and whether the school district already owned the land.
Half of the states, including Michigan, do not require any evaluation of the environmental quality of areas under consideration as sites for new schools, nor do they prohibit siting new industrial facilities and highways near existing schools. This makes it likely that new schools will be built in undesirable locations to keep the cost of land acquisition down."
One of the most significant points that Health Affairs highlights is the vulnerability of our children. Children have little to no say in where they live, and even less say in where they attend school. Parents often cannot afford to move to a different city or send their children to a different school, so it is up to our leaders in government to address site analysis and make changes to ensure that both schools already in use and schools that will be built in the future will be safe for our children. Pollution causes a number of adverse health effects, including childhood asthma, and this study shows that pollution affects children in Latino and African American communities more than their peers.
We know it’s not possible to pick up and move your school to a cleaner location; so as a concerned parent, what can you do? While there are not panaceas, there are a few things you can do.
First, while it’s hard for one school to affect outdoor air pollution, you can have an impact on your indoor environment and make sure the air inside your school is as clean as possible. Consider developing a school indoor environmental quality (IEQ) team to address issues. Many free tools are available to help establish IEQ teams, such as the EPA’s Tools for Schools Action Kit. Working with other parents, teachers, students and administrators, we can take action to limit pesticide use, green the cleaning programs, or improve ventilation within the school building.
Second, let’s get proactive on school siting. Work in your community or your state to make sure there are siting guidelines that will limit the exposures that can happen with a highly polluted site. Visit the Child Proofing Our Communities guidelines for school siting recommendations.
Finally, if your school district is going to build a new school, get involved and make sure your community understands the importance of school siting. Let your voice be heard and educate school boards, principals, teachers and anyone else that will listen about siting and the effects that it can have on your children.
Together, we can take action to ensure that our nation's schools are healthy and safe.