Healthy Schools 101: Why Our Kids Need Healthier Facilities


I am the founder and executive director of a national nonprofit dedicated to reversing the many threats that unhealthy schools pose to children’s health and learning. I’m also a parent.

In fact, my organization’s roots lie in a shattering family experience: my younger son was poisoned by pesticides repeatedly applied at school. My son is grown now, with children of his own. But I vividly remember the sheer panic, then the anger and tears of frustration, and a new felt commitment to root reforms for children, as I learned how common environmental hazards were at all schools.

EPA has estimated that half of the nation’s 130,000 public and private schools suffer from indoor pollution. Of course, toxic products are a problem in any environment. But they are especially worrisome in schools.

As parents, we like to think of schools as warm and nurturing places for our kids. After all, other than home, schools are the environment where children spend the most time. Yet tens of thousands of P-12 school buildings daily assault our kids with environmental threats. Many of those threats arise from schools’ routine use of toxic products—everything from cleaning products to dry erase markers to wall paints and PCBs. These products and legacy toxics produce a stew of chemicals that degrade schools’ indoor environmental quality (IEQ).

Children Faces Special Risks from Harmful Chemicals

EPA has estimated that half of the nation’s 130,000 public and private schools suffer from indoor pollution. Of course, toxic products are a problem in any environment. But they are especially worrisome in schools. School buildings are not well maintained and often poorly ventilated. They are crowded—schools are four times more densely occupied than offices. And the children who are packed into these facilities face special risks from harmful chemicals: they are biologically more vulnerable than adults, they face more exposures, and they are less able to identify threats or remove themselves from harm’s way.

Poor IEQ Impacts Health and Children’s Ability to Learn

The science is clear: poor IEQ in schools has direct impacts on children’s health and their ability to learn. Numerous studies have documented the effects, but two high-profile reports stand out. In 2006, the National Research Council found sufficient evidence linking environmental factors and children’s (and personnel’s) health to urge that in the future conventional green buildings be deliberately designed for health. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine found that “[p]oor indoor environmental quality is creating health problems today and impairs the ability of occupants to work and learn” and recommended “preventing exposures” (which it reported can be 100-1,000 times more intense indoors than out).

Advocates for children and education have launched numerous campaigns to improve schools. It’s great to see efforts to improve standards, train teachers, or otherwise enhance the school experience. But a new and improved curriculum, for instance, won’t help kids who can’t pay attention—or who are absent—because their schools made them sick. The school environment must also be addressed.

Reduce Indoor Air Pollution by Keeping Toxic Products Out

So how do we improve school IEQ? My organization is pushing for new policies and a host of other reforms. But the quickest and even the cheapest way to reduce indoor pollution in schools is to keep toxic products out. Schools must replace conventional toxic products with safer, healthier alternatives. Such as certified green cleaning products and safer disinfectants. Unfortunately, schools face special challenges in making these switches. Most local schools are unaware of decades of federal and state policies on reducing and preventing pollution. Unlike many of their sister agencies, education agencies have scant experience with environment generally or with green products specifically and no staff expert in the subject. For these and other reasons, schools are easy targets for greenwashing campaigns by trade associations and vendors.

A Practical Guide to Switching to Green Products

A new resource responds to these challenges. Healthy Purchasing for Healthy Schools was commissioned by the Coalition for Healthier Schools, which my organization coordinates, specifically to help schools understand why and how to switch to green products. The guide covers six product categories commonly used in schools: cleaning supplies, office equipment, paints, office supplies, art supplies, and furniture. It explains the hazards of conventional products and defines ingredients. It includes purchase specifications, names of the certifying bodies for each product category, sample bid specifications, and much, much more.

Armed with this practical information, districts, NGOs, and communities can move forward on green purchasing at school. The result will be immediate, tangible improvements to school IEQ. Children will literally breathe easier—and their parents can breathe sighs of relief.

The Healthy Schools Network is an environmental health research, education, and advocacy organization. The Network is recognized as the founder of the nation’s healthy schools movement and the nation’s leading voice for children’s environmental health at school. The National Coalition for Healthier Schools, which unites advocates from across the country working to protect children’s environmental health at school and has won new guidelines and funds for school environment.

Claire Barnett

Claire Barnett is the founding executive director of Healthy Schools Network. She also serves as coordinator of the National Coalition for Healthier Schools.