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Top 10 Tips to Create a Healthy School

1. Limit student exposure to chemicals in food.

  • Encourage students to use glass storage containers for leftovers or for carrying lunch to school. This reduces dependence on plastics and exposure to harmful BPA.
  • Look into how food is packaged and reheated at your school to ensure that chemicals are not leaching into food served to students. You should not microwave food in plastic.
  • Encourage students to start carrying reusable BPA-free water bottles that can be refilled at water fountains.

2. Reduce student exposure to toxic chemicals while conducting science experiments.

  • Research how you can conduct laboratory experiments utilizing the least toxic chemicals possible.
  • Teach lab safety not only to students, but also to any school staff who may have access to laboratory chemicals or be helping out in the classroom.
  • Make sure your school has a plan in place for storing chemicals. This plan should outline what chemicals can be stored together, how each chemical needs to be stored, when the chemicals need to be disposed, and how to safely dispose of them.
  • Find out if someone in your county can visit your school to discuss handling, storage and disposal of chemicals. Ask questions and inquire about storage and disposal options that might save your school money.

3. Encourage your school to make purchases with health in mind.

  • When choosing materials such as paint, furniture, carpets, insulation, or ceiling tiles, consider factors such as low off-gassing or recycled content. Look for green building products that have been certified through programs such as Green Seal, Green Guard, Environmental Choice or Green Label Plus.
  • When designing new spaces or remodeling existing buildings, consider the benefits of maximizing daylight through the use of windows and skylights.
  • Encourage janitorial staff to utilize green cleaning products. It can be difficult to determine which commercial cleaning products are safe for people and the environment, so look for products that have been certified by Green Seal, or research cleaning product recipes that utilize natural ingredients such as vinegar, lemon, and baking soda.
  • Check out the Green Schools Initiative’s Green Schools Buying Guide, which is chock-full of information to help schools make purchasing decisions that will protect students’ health and the environment.

4. Reduce student exposure to hazardous chemicals on the school grounds.

  • Encourage maintenance staff to develop an Integrated Pest Management plan and to consider eliminating pesticides entirely. Pesticides and other lawn chemicals are often used to maintain the school grounds and playing fields, resulting in exposure both outside and after the chemicals are tracked indoors.
  • When replacing play structures, choose those that are non-toxic and utilize recycled content. Also consider using natural materials for outdoor play instead of plastics.
  • Reduce arsenic exposure on existing play structures by applying water sealers to all equipment. Consider testing arsenic using at-home kits.
  • Develop a no-idling policy at your school that requires school buses and cars to turn off their engines when waiting to pick up or drop off students. This will prevent students and school staff from inhaling exhaust.

5. Recycle and dispose of hazardous materials appropriately.

  • Contact your local waste management agency to find out how to appropriately dispose of electronics. Televisions, computer monitors, computers, thermostats and other electronics can contain a combination of lead, mercury, PBDEs, and other chemicals. When an electronic product has reached the end of its life, it must be properly recycled to ensure that the toxic components are handled with special care.
  • Develop a plan at your school for recycling burned out or broken compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) to avoid mercury exposure.
  • Make sure you take the appropriate steps to dispose of art materials that can no longer be used. Some materials may need to be neutralized before disposal in the trash, while others may need to be taken to your county’s hazardous waste facility. Remember to recycle art materials whenever possible.

6. Evaluate the potential for lead exposure at your school.

  • If your school was built before 1978, students may be exposed to lead through lead-based paints and lead dust. Reach out to your county to request that a professional inspect your school for lead and, if found, recommend steps for abatement.
  • Take a close look at furniture, toys and fixtures in your school as they may be contaminated with lead if they were made before 1978.
  • Does your school have its own well or other water source? If so, you should test your school’s drinking water.
  • Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Healthy School Environments page for links to more information about lead.

7. Take steps to improve indoor air quality at your school.

  • Use HEPA filters in the ventilation system and change air filters regularly.
  • Make sure all air vents are unblocked and free from clutter.
  • Ask bus drivers not to idle next to the fresh air intake and ask facilities staff to move garbage away from air intakes.
  • Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit which can help you improve indoor air problems at little- or no-cost.

8. Reduce asthma triggers at your school and educate staff.

  • Provide asthma training for staff and students. Outline how to minimize asthma triggers, and provide an overview of how to respond to a student suffering from an asthma attack.
  • Consider eliminating the following asthma triggers from your school: urinal blocks, candles, deodorizers, plug-in air fresheners, aerosol sprays, furniture from home, stuffed animals and area rugs.
  • Evaluate whether a class pet will trigger asthma attacks in students. An aquarium is a good option for any classroom with students who have asthma problems.

9. Take steps to prevent a mold problem from developing at your school.

  • Inspect your school building, looking for signs of moisture, mold and leaks. If you notice any leaks, report them immediately to the janitorial staff.
  • If you notice mold on hard surfaces, use water and detergent to scrub off the mold and then dry them completely. If you find mold on porous surfaces, such as ceiling tiles or carpet, replace them.
  • Check to see if moisture-generating areas (such as kitchens and locker rooms) have vents to the outside. Consider whether high humidity levels in your school might mean you need to run a portable dehumidifier during the day.

10. Take steps to prevent mercury exposure at your school.

  • Take an inventory of your school to determine all mercury-containing items. Look into purchasing mercury-free alternatives when possible.
  • Develop a mercury spill response plan. Hold a training to educate all staff on how to properly clean up a mercury spill. Make sure there are mercury clean-up kits in all rooms that contain mercury.
  • Learn how to properly dispose of items containing mercury in your county. Because mercury is hazardous, you should never put items containing mercury in the regular garbage.
  • Never use a vacuum cleaner, mop or broom to clean up a mercury spill! Heat from the vacuum’s motor will increase the amount of mercury vapor in the air. Mops and brooms will spread the mercury, making proper cleanup more difficult and costly.

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