Chemical Exposure Risks in Schools

Use the correct cleaning products and store safelyThere is often more discussion about poison prevention in the home, but schools house many chemicals that can be dangerous, as well. Some of these chemicals come in the form of cleaning products and other daily use items. Others are chemicals that are stored away, but could be harmful in the event of a fire or accident and require proper safe disposal. Still more are materials and chemicals once thought safe for use in school building construction, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Commonly used polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products and floors are also a concern. In fact, PVCs are widely used in not just in schools, but in homes, hospitals and more, and evidence about its dangers to human health continues to grow.

PCBs

PCBs were once used to make caulk and other construction materials, and are still present in some schools today. PCBs were banned in 1979, but not all of the caulk has been replaced in older schools. PCBs that accumulate in children’s bodies can damage the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.

There are many ways children can be exposed to caulk that contains PCBs, including breathing surrounding air and dust, touching caulk or contaminated soil directly, and putting their hands into their mouths after touching PCB contaminated items.

The good news is that there are steps educators can take in the classrooms to protect students:

  • Try to keep children from touching caulk or surrounding areas
  • Wash your hands before eatingClean often with wet cloths to minimize dust, especially around areas known to have PCB in the caulk
  • Do not sweep caulk with dry brooms or use dusters because PCB dust will spread
  • Use HEPA filters in vacuums
  • Wash hands before eating
  • Wash toys often
  • Think about testing the air or caulk for PCBs to fully know risks
  • Only trained personnel should remove caulk with PCBs

PVC

PVC is a man-made product that can be rigid or made into flexible plastic with the use of chemicals that have toxic properties, especially for children. Widely used, PVC is found in flooring, piping, roofing, playground equipment, toys, school supplies and more. In addition, the cleaning products used to maintain PVC flooring in schools are also toxic. Phthalates, chemicals used to soften PVC, are linked to asthma, learning disabilities, diabetes and more. While certain phthalates have been banned for use in toys, many are still present in school and home products used by and around children – from binders to art supplies to backpacks.

Reducing PVC exposure in schools may seem like an overwhelming prospect, but there are some steps schools can take. PVC-free alternative building materials, school and office supplies, and more items are available, as are greener cleaning products. Check out Healthy Purchasing for Healthy Schools, an effort supported by NEA Healthy Futures, for assistance.

Educators, school administrators and students alike will benefit from a greater understanding of how to identify and handle the chemicals all around us. At the same time, health experts continue to study PVC to help schools find viable alternatives and protect students from exposures. Discussing these chemicals in the classroom can raise awareness of students’ surroundings, and empower students to make healthy choices both for themselves and the environment.

Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Center for Health, Environment and Justice; American Public Health Association; United States Consumer Product Safety Commission

Note: This page was completed as a 2014 National Education Association New Business Item (NBI).