8 Ways to Help Children 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 plagues 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. Some schools have even started plant walls (called living walls) to clean the air and also to decorate with nature. These are gorgeous and I would love to see my school try something like it.

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 awareness campaign at your child’s school.

7. Ask what kind of cleaners are used. Encourage the use of green, unscented cleaners. Some states are mandating this now– and many school nurses are informed about how important it is to keep kids from being unnecessarily to chemicals in conventional cleaners. There are plenty of cleaners that are green, healthy and kill viruses and bacteria. Nurses are allies, usually. If you think toxic cleaners are being used, contact the school nurse and principal and ask about it.

8. Ditch the antibacterial soaps. Soap works better anyway and doesn’t have the toxic chemical that most antibacterial soaps do (such as the chemical triclosan– which the FDA just announced it would regulate). You can send in greener and healthier versions of hand sanitizer if necessary.

Join (or start!) a health and wellness committee that can take these issues school wide to protect all kids in all classrooms.

What are your tips for making schools greener and healthier for everyone?

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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