Protect Our School Communities from Environmental hazards

Monday is National Healthy Schools Day, which emphasizes a healthy indoor air quality and environment in our public schools. This guest post by Cyndi O’Rourke, an Austin mother of three, includes information Cyndi recently sent in a letter to the Texas PTA for the May newsletter.

As the mother of three children, I shared concerns with other parents in our school district when we learned in 2006 that our school board had acquired and planned to convert a former chemical research and development facility into a new elementary school.

The decision to purchase this site was made largely without community input, and the purchase and construction of the property was conducted before testing of the grounds for environmental contamination was complete.  Parents contacted the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to assist in a thorough environmental assessment of the site. TCEQ performed a “Pre-Cerclis” screening (site assessment of previous ownership, geologic makeup, production history and field test samples) and the site ranked a “Moderate to High Potential Hazard.”

After vocal parent involvement and the guidance of federal, state, and local agencies, the school district responded with protective measures and remediation of contamination was conducted.

Nearly half the states, including Texas, have no laws to prevent new school sites from being built on or near sources of environmental pollution. [Fischbach, Steve. Not In My Schoolyard: Avoiding Environmental Hazards at School Through Improved School Site Selection Policies, (Rhode Island Legal Services March 2006).] This realization raises concerns for schools in areas with low parent involvement.  Further, many school districts simply do not have the money to perform costly remediation.

What can we do to better protect the health and safety of Texas students?
Contact your State Representative and Senator and ask them to support HB 1855/SB 941 that directs TCEQ and the Texas Education Agency to collect data on the policies and practices used by school districts to evaluate and select sites for new schools, as well as the proximity of existing campuses to potential environmental hazards.

Reach out to your school board and ask them to adopt EPA’s Voluntary School Siting Guidelines scheduled to be released at the end of this year.  Encourage Texas Association of School Boards to conduct training for school districts and business administrative personnel on these Guidelines.

Healthy Schools are Safer
Because children consume and absorb more toxins relative to adults, they are more susceptible to exposure from chemicals. Children are not little adults. Their natural curiosity, tendency to explore and inclination to put their hands in their mouths opens them to health risks adults readily avoid. Children’s longer remaining life span provides more time for environmentally induced diseases to develop. [Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.]

Healthy Schools are Cost Effective
By taking necessary steps to properly evaluate a site in the beginning, decision makers can eliminate candidate sites that may require costly remediation and corrective actions, or at a minimum, hold prior owners responsible for some of the clean-up cost.  This allows school districts to protect the school community and use taxpayer money responsibly.

Healthy Schools are Smarter
Poor indoor environmental and air quality can have a negative impact on learning environments, resulting in absenteeism, slower student learning, decreased test scores, increase respiratory ailments, increased medical costs, lower teacher productivity, and lower student lifelong achievement earnings. [Kats, Gregory. Greening America’s Schools, Costs and Benefits.]

Together, we can achieve environmental equality for all children and faculty at school and allow them to reach their full academic potential. So please help by contacting your Senator in support of HB 1855/SB 941. Our children deserve it.

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One Comment

  1. Shellie Logan
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 8:13 AM | Permalink

    Thank you, Cyndi, for hard work and dedication to the health and wellbeing of our children.