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Healthy School Environments

About the Guidelines

EPA's Role in Promoting K-12 School Environmental Health Programs for States

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (310pp, 828K, About PDF) amended the Toxic Substances Control Act, 15 U.S.C. 2601 et seq., by adding a requirement for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in consultation with relevant federal agencies, to develop voluntary guidelines to assist states in establishing and implementing environmental health programs for K-12 schools. Healthy school environments play an important role in the health and academic success of children. Exposure to environmental hazards in schools can negatively impact the health of children and school staff.1 Unhealthy school environments can also affect attendance, concentration, and performance, as well as lead to expensive, time-consuming cleanup and remediation activities.1

Protecting children's health and advancing environmental justice are critically important goals for EPA, as reflected in EPA's strategic plan.2 A child's developing organ systems are often more sensitive to environmental stressors, and children are frequently more heavily exposed to toxic substances in the environment than are adults.3 Children in minority, low-income, and other underserved populations, as well as children with disabilities, can experience higher exposures to multiple environmental contaminants where they live, learn, and play and might be placed at a disproportionate risk for associated health effects.4

EPA has a host of programs and an extensive list of resources to help states assist schools and school districts in creating comprehensive, sustainable strategies that promote healthy learning places for students. EPA's Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools Program, ENERGY STAR for K-12 School Districts, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for Schools, School Flag Program, and SunWise are just some of the EPA programs and resources that are included in these guidelines.

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What is an Effective State Environmental Health Program for Schools?

Photo of a smiling African-American boy using a computer at school

An effective state environmental health program for schools is a holistic, comprehensive, and actionable strategy that integrates preventive measures and addresses environmental health issues by fostering well-maintained school buildings and grounds. Sustainable school environmental health programs promote school environments that are conducive to learning and protect the health of children and staff. These programs have the added benefits of reducing school absenteeism, enhancing student performance, and ultimately, saving money for schools and school districts.5 Existing, successful school environmental health programs have been strongly supported and sustained through the development and implementation of state policies and regulations that promote awareness and participation by teachers, school staff, and students.

These guidelines are designed to help states address environmental health challenges in K-12 schools by:

  • Outlining steps that states can take to establish, promote, and sustain successful and affordable school environmental health programs.
  • Assisting states in providing schools and school districts with technical tools and resources, including a comprehensive model school environmental health program, to help schools implement practical, cost-effective environmental health solutions.
  • Sharing best practices and highlighting case studies of successful, cost-effective state environmental health programs for schools that can be implemented by other states.

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The Importance of Environmental Health in K-12 Schools

On any given day in America, more than 50 million public school students spend a significant portion of their day in school buildings.6 When the school environment is unhealthy, children can be exposed to allergens, pollutants, chemicals, and classroom conditions (e.g., poor ventilation, lighting, acoustics, and temperature control) that might cause their health, attendance, and academic performance to suffer.c,7 In a 2005 survey conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics, 43% of public school principals reported that a variety of environmental factors (e.g., indoor air quality, ventilation, and day lighting) interfered with the delivery of instruction in permanent school buildings.8 Furthermore, a 2011 report issued by the Institute of Medicine suggests climate change might worsen existing indoor environmental problems and introduce new ones.9

Examples of Symptoms Caused by Poor Indoor Environmental Health:1
  • Respiratory irritation
  • Sore throats
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Asthma attacks
  • Inability to concentrate

heading icon Vulnerability of Children to Contaminants in Their Environment

Children are often more heavily exposed to toxic substances in the environment than adults because they spend more time on the ground and engage in more hand-to-mouth behavior. Children also breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food per pound of body weight than adults.3 A child's respiratory, immune, nervous, reproductive, and skeletal systems continue to develop throughout childhood. Exposures to environmental contaminants that occur early in life can cause adverse health impacts in children that can have implications well into adulthood.10 Furthermore, some children with disabilities face unique challenges that might make them particularly vulnerable to the effects of an unhealthy school environment.

Environmental Justice and Children's Health in Schools

When addressing children's environmental health in schools, it is important to note that significant disparities exist in the prevalence of chronic health outcomes in children.3,11 For example, although the prevalence of asthma in American children has been reported to be slightly less than 10% as a whole, in 2009, the prevalence of asthma among African-American children living below the poverty line was approximately 18%, or twice the national average.11 Numerous asthma triggers can be present in school environments, ranging from mold to constituents in cleaning products and pesticides. A variety of chronic health outcomes are of potential concern among children in schools and these issues can result in disparate impacts in a broad diversity of populations, including children with disabilities.

Healthy school environments are a key step in reducing asthma disparities. The Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities (24pp, 1.2M, About PDF) , released in May 2012 by the President's Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children, promotes reducing the burden caused by asthma on children in minority and low-income communities, including reducing exposures to asthma triggers in the school environment.

In addition, the quality of the school environment is often tied to income. Per capita school expenditures can vary greatly according to community resources, especially because many school districts rely on local property taxes for funding.12 In 1999, a federal survey of school facilities in a representative sample of 903 public elementary and secondary schools13 found that 20% of schools had a building in less than adequate repair, 43% had at least one infrastructure deficiency (e.g., heating, indoor air quality), and approximately 10% were seriously overcrowded (greater than 125% capacity). Not surprisingly, predominantly low-income schools suffered a disproportionate burden of inadequate school facilities.12

When addressing children's environmental health in schools, it is important to note that poor indoor environments can affect a child's health. Dirt, allergens, chemicals, and other contaminants can trigger or further aggravate allergies and illnesses, such as asthma. Asthma is a great health concern for children, and is the leading cause of children's absence from school.14 Children who have uncontrolled asthma have more disturbed sleep, have been shown to perform worse on concentration and memory tests, and tend to have more psychological problems.15 Asthma can have significant impacts on a variety of children's health outcomes and classroom performance.16

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Impact on Student Performance

Poor indoor environments have been associated with a variety of health symptoms and a decline in student performance in reasoning, typing, and math.17 Several studies have found that health, attendance, and academic performance improve with increased maintenance of school facilities.16,18 For instance, one study found that schools in better physical condition report improved academic performance while schools with fewer janitorial personnel and higher maintenance backlogs report poorer academic performance.19 Other studies demonstrate that improved indoor air quality increases productivity and performance of mental tasks (e.g., concentration and recall) in both adults and children.d,7 Growing evidence also suggests that improving outdoor air ventilation rates can improve student and teacher performance, increase test scores, and reduce airborne transmission of infection.20,21,22,23,24 In one study, children in classrooms with higher outdoor air ventilation rates scored 14 to 15% higher on standardized tests than children in classrooms with lower outdoor air ventilation rates.25

A state environmental health program for schools can play a critical role in setting the expectation for schools to provide an environment that protects children's health and maximizes student performance.

School Legal Requirements

Although these guidelines are voluntary, it is important to note that schools are obligated to comply with relevant environmental regulations, and environmental compliance is an integral part of a state environmental health program for schools. EPA Region 2's Environmental Compliance and Best Management Practices: Guidance Manual for K-12 Schools (224pp, 6.5M, About PDF) serves as a helpful reminder of key environmental requirements. It is important to note that this document does not address state or local requirements that could apply and, in some cases, be more stringent. Other organizations that provide resources to help K-12 schools with compliance include the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's Safety Checklist for Schools and the Environmental Law Institute's Indoor Environments and Green Buildings Policy Resource Center Exit EPA Disclaimer.

SNAPSHOT:

School Buildings and Student Performance

A 2008 study of 95 New York City public schools found that students attended fewer days on average and had lower grades in English, language arts, and math when enrolled in school facilities that were in poor condition.26

Additionally, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Subpart D, require public elementary and secondary school recipients of federal funding to provide an appropriate public education to qualified students with disabilities, which include those with respiratory physical impairments. The provisions of an appropriate education must be designed to meet the individual educational needs of disabled persons as adequately as the needs of nondisabled persons. Properly addressing indoor environmental quality can help schools adhere to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and improve student and staff performance.

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heading iconCosts and Benefits of a State Environmental Health Program for Schools

Although schools and school districts face many financial challenges, modest investments in improving school environments and implementing practical preventive strategies can yield significant benefits and cost savings. Benefits of state environmental health programs for schools can be seen in decreased absenteeism among children and teachers,7,27 stronger academic performance,9,28,29 and higher scores on standardized tests.30 Small investments to address critical environmental issues in schools can save schools money by avoiding costly cleanups and remediation related to poor indoor air quality, mold and mildew damage, mismanaged chemicals, and pest infestation. By implementing school environmental health programs, states can help schools significantly improve their environments, where children spend more time than any other place outside of their homes.

There are measurable costs for not promoting healthy school environments. The costs imposed by environmentally attributable diseases, such as asthma, on children, families, and schools are immense.31 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the annual economic cost of asthma, including direct medical costs from hospital stays and indirect costs (e.g., lost school and work days), amounts to more than $56 billion annually.33 For states, a large percentage of these costs can be attributed to health care expenditures, lost school days, and lost productivity (e.g., parents having to stay home to care for a sick child). Given the amount of time that children spend in school every day, high-quality school environments are critically important for ensuring that children are healthy and able to perform in the classroom.

It is also important to focus on healthy school environments when conducting other upgrades to schools, such as energy efficiency improvements (e.g., changes to the building envelope, ventilation systems, lighting, and climate control). When done properly, many energy efficiency upgrades can yield significant cost savings and environmental benefits, and can also help improve the quality of a school's indoor environment, protecting, and even enhancing, indoor air quality without sacrificing energy performance. If certain energy upgrades are not done correctly, however, they might adversely impact indoor air quality and cause other health concerns for children and staff. For example, increased energy efficiency in building construction, in some cases, has resulted in tighter building shells and reduced ventilation rates. EPA's Energy Efficiency and Indoor Air Quality in Schools (5pp, 459K, About PDF) working paper describes how to enhance energy efficiency while protecting indoor air quality. For additional guidance on indoor air quality, consult EPA's IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit.

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c The book Safe and Healthy School Environments explores the school environment using the methods and perspectives of environmental health science. Though environmental health has long been understood to be an important factor in workplaces, homes, and communities, this book addresses the same basic concerns in schools.
d For a summary of the impact of indoor environmental quality on work and school performance, as well as other indoor air quality research findings, see the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Scientific Findings Resource Bank established as a cooperative venture between EPA and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: Accessible at http://www.iaqscience.lbl.gov/performance-summary.html.

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