Smarter Living: Schools
Flag Day, Every Day: A New Air Quality Education Program Helps Students and the Community
Photo: Daniel R. Bloom/Flickr
When looking at the issue of healthy schools, it's easy for administrators and parents to focus on the low-hanging fruit: switching to green cleaners and less-toxic methods of pest control, both of which reduce children's exposures to hormone-disrupting and potentially cancer-causing chemicals. But it can be the problems over which parents have little control that pose the greatest threats.
"A lot of schools, both public and private, are sited too close to pollution sources," says Diane Bailey, a senior scientist in NRDC's public health program. "There are too many schools in the presence of a polluting industry, and far too many schools are impacted by heavy traffic."
And that outdoor pollution takes its toll, she adds. Asthma is the number one chronic disease among children younger than 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, afflicting 3 out of every 30 schoolchildren.
That feeds into other issues like obesity, because these children can't exercise, Bailey says. "It also impacts school funding," she adds. Asthma is among the leading causes of school absenteeism, the CDC notes, and school funding is based on attendance figures.
It's not just the students, either. "Teachers and custodians have high rates of occupational asthma," says Claire Barnett, founder and executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, adding that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health often reports that indoor air quality is the source of most occupational health complaints.
"If buildings aren't properly sited and designed from the get go, they will develop problems with indoor air quality," Barnett notes. "Siting is not just about the airport or highway next door but building structures on Superfund sites, brownfields or damp or frequently flooded locations, which can cause mold problems."
Despite these difficulties, Bailey notes that schools can do something, pointing out that some in the Los Angeles area are adding more vegetation to screen out pollution and installing specialized air filters to eliminate pollutants from the Valero oil refinery.
In Atlanta, Lyndsey Collins is the seventh grade life sciences teacher at the Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy, an all-girls public school. Though the school was built with green design principles in mind, it's situated right off a major highway that gets lots of truck traffic and it's about a mile from a large rail yard. The neighborhood consistently registers some of the highest levels of particulate pollution in Atlanta, according to the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In the mornings, Collins logs onto AirNow.gov to get the area's air quality index, a measure of how bad the pollution is expected to be that day. Then she raises a flag outside the school to match the corresponding hazard color, ranging from green for good to dark red for hazardous.
"Once that's done, I'll leave a note at the front office for the girl who's reading the announcements," she says. "She'll read the air quality index for the day and the recommendations from the government about what they mean as far as outside activities are concerned."
Teachers were also given handouts about what the various air quality warnings mean so they can plan their day's activities accordingly, for instance, holding PE classes in the gym rather than outside or reducing the intensity of outdoor exercise if there's no other choice than to hold class outdoors.
The program is the first of its kind in Georgia and was first proposed by a local nonprofit called Mothers & Others for Clean Air, which has been organizing smog-alert outreach programs for schools and childcare workers for three years. "One of the reasons I decided to pursue the school flag program was that I was involved with both the CDC and the EPA down here, and I noticed that there was a bit of a disconnect in their messaging about exercising outdoors with air pollution," says Rebecca Watts Hull, director at Mothers & Others for Clean Air.
On the one hand, the EPA has its air quality index forecasts and recommends that people avoid exercising outdoors on bad air days, based on scientific research that pollution triggers asthma attacks, exacerbates allergies, and leads to long-term health problems such as heart disease and stroke.
On the other hand, the CDC released physical activity guidelines in 2008 saying that the benefits of exercising outweighed any risks associated with exposure to air pollution. "There's no research to support that statement," Hull says. "But they're very concerned about any messaging that gives people an excuse not to be active."
And it's a legitimate concern, considering the rising rates of obesity in the U.S. "The nice thing about this flag program is that the flags make visible the air quality," Hull says, for both students and parents alike.
When air quality is good, teachers can stress the importance of being active outdoors, but when it's bad, they can educate students (and adults) about the need to shift the time of day to exercise or the need to exercise indoors. "That's the reason we have the flag flying high and in bright colors," says Lyndsey Collins. "We want community members to notice it and ask questions and understand what we're doing."
last revised 8/22/2011