School Environmental Health Plan
A School Environmental Health Plan serves many purposes. A healthy school environment will reduce illness, absenteeism, and nurse office visits. Studies have linked a healthy environment to greater comfort, which may lead to higher academic performance. A well-maintained building can reduce maintenance and energy costs. Moreover, implementing a well-crafted plan can ensure compliance with various regulations. Finally, liability risk and public relations can be improved through execution of an effective plan.
How to create a School Environmental Health Plan
There are three primary resources to help Minnesota school officials create a School Environmental Health Plan:
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created:
State School Environmental Health Guidelines
- The Minnesota Department of Health 'School Environmental Health Portal' provides further guidance, including state-specific regulations, best practices, and resources:
School Environmental Health Portal
- The Minnesota Department of Education issues an annual 'Health and Safety Letter' that provides information about health and safety activities that can be funded, and guidance on developing a plan: Annual Health and Safety Letter
How to use the School Environmental Health Portal
The portal provides links to resources, mostly state and federal sites, to help school staff develop their environmental health plan. Some of these topics have specific regulations, and it is especially important for schools to comply with these requirements. The portal also has links to trainings, a newsletter, MDH contacts, and highlighted program areas.
Elements of a School Environmental Health Plan
School officials should consider the 22 topic areas listed in the portal as elements of their School Environmental Health Plan. These topics can be organized into seven general components.
Cleaning and Maintenance
School environments are healthier when they are kept clean and well maintained. Unsanitary conditions attract insects and vermin, and irritants and allergens found in dust and dirt can have a negative impact on student health and performance in schools. The chemicals found in some cleaning products can also cause health problems. Using green cleaning products and practices can help to avoid these health effects, improve indoor air quality, reduce the transmission of infectious diseases, and increase the lifespan of facilities. Maintaining the school facility is just as important as routine cleaning to ensure a healthy environment for children and staff. A regular inspection program can identify problems before they impact the school environment and the occupants' health.
Mold and Moisture
The key to mold control is moisture control. Keeping the school environment dry is essential for maintaining a healthy school building, as well as promoting an environment conducive to learning and working. The presence of moisture within building structures stimulates the growth of molds and other biological contaminants, and damp schools provide conditions conducive for mites, roaches, and rodents, which are associated with asthma, allergies, and other respiratory diseases. Moisture and mold can also damage building infrastructure and result in costly mitigation and material replacement. Inspections, preventive maintenance, quick response to water problems, and proper cleanup are critical to prevent mold problems.
Chemicals and Contaminants
Schools need to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for children by preventing exposure to chemicals and environmental contaminants that pose health risks to them and the environment. Children spend a significant portion of their time in school and might be more vulnerable to chemical and environmental contaminant hazards than adults. A variety of hazards may be found in schools, including asbestos, lead, Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), radon, and mercury. Various state and federal regulations exist regarding these pollutants. Schools can regularly inspect for the presence of these hazards, and, where necessary, manage in place or remove the hazards.
Ventilation and Filtration
Good indoor air quality can help ensure a healthier and higher performance learning environment for students and school staff, and proper maintenance of ventilation and filtration equipment can play a role in maintaining or improving the quality of the indoor air. Adequate ventilation with outdoor air is a key component for good indoor air quality in schools and classrooms, and can contribute to mitigating the effects of radon and vapor intrusion. Furthermore, well-maintained air filtration systems can help capture and remove airborne particles that can be asthma triggers, allergens, infectious or toxic to humans.
Pests and Pesticides
Droppings or body parts from cockroaches, rodents, and other pests can trigger asthma attacks and can cause allergic reactions. Some pests also can transmit disease. Pesticides should be used as a last resort to control pests because they contain chemicals that can be toxic to humans and the environment and may pose a risk to human health, especially when people do not follow directions on product labels or if they use products irresponsibly (e.g., using pesticides when they are not needed, using pesticides for other than their intended use, or not following recommended application rates). Young children can be especially vulnerable to pesticides because their internal organs are still developing and their exposure may be greater.
Schools and school districts performing building upgrades should ensure that the upgrades make their facilities more energy-efficient and healthier at the same time. When done properly, many energy efficiency upgrades can improve the quality of a school's indoor environment, protecting—even enhancing—indoor air quality without sacrificing energy performance. If certain energy upgrades are not done correctly, however, they can adversely impact indoor air quality and cause 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. In turn, reduced ventilation rates may result in increased levels of indoor pollutants.
Ground level ozone and particle pollution are the two air pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in the United States. Excessive idling by school buses, passenger vehicles, and delivery trucks can cause elevated levels of pollutants in and around the school. Reducing idling, retrofitting school buses, tracking the outdoor air quality index, and monitoring outdoor activities are critical elements to minimizing exposure to outdoor pollutants. Another outdoor concern is excessive exposure to UV from the sun, which can be reduced through education, tracking the UV index, and use of sun-screen.