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June 2011 Grants Newsletter

Getting Toxins Out of Schools

Some cleaning supplies in schools pose health hazards to children, but greener and healthier alternatives exist. Photo by Jvlivs Photography
As unofficial conference centers of the germ world, schools need to be cleaned constantly. But many cleaning products contain harmful and cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and chloroform.

“Too often we hear of schools being evacuated because bleach and ammonia were accidently mixed, creating lethal chlorine gas,” says Mark Bishop, vice president of policy and communications at the Healthy Schools Campaign. “But more often, it is a child’s day-to-day exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals that goes unnoticed.”

The health risks of exposure to chemicals are higher for children, says Bishop. “Kids breathe and eat more than adults relative to their size, their immune systems are still developing, and, of course, children lick things, chew on pencils, don’t like washing their hands, and stick things in their ears.”

Safer and more environmentally friendly cleaning has come a long way in the past ten years, with thousands of affordable and widely available green products on shelves. New cleaning methods have also been developed that save schools money on chemicals and labor costs. For instance, in its widely distributed Quick and Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools, the Healthy Schools Campaign informs facilities managers about using microfiber cloths that can pick up dirt rather than cleaning sprays and using mop buckets that can filter water and extend the use of chemical cleaning solutions.

A 2009 grant to the Healthy Schools Campaign helped it draft model green-cleaning legislation. Using this model, the Campaign worked with local advocates to introduce and support green-cleaning policies around the country. To date, 19 states have introduced green-cleaning legislation and a total of 9 states have passed legislation—most recently Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, and Iowa. A grant of $75,000 is helping the Campaign to continue its work at the policy and grassroots levels. “At every level you need to identify leaders—legislators, parents, teachers, and principals—anyone who will champion the issue,” says Bishop. “We also have an awards program that recognizes schools that have taken major steps toward creating a healthier environment. Their example does wonders in showing other schools how it’s done.”

Campaign president and CEO Rochelle Davis has been asked by the Environmental Protection Agency to help advise it on how to encourage adoption of strong green-cleaning policies; the Campaign will also help develop report cards on school health, workshops for school professionals, and inspection programs to make sure schools are taking steps in the right direction.

According to Bishop, “The challenge is getting schools to embrace change. While we work hard to promote state policy, it is strong leadership at the school level where the real difference is made. There is no such thing as the perfect policy; in reality, implementation is the key.”

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