October 1, 2002
Good Morning Chairman and members of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Please accept my testimony from the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) regarding healthy schools in Vermont for today’s hearing on “Green Schools.”
Currently, many Vermont schools have environmental health problems that pose health risks to children and staff. For many years now, VPIRG has worked to rid schools in Vermont of environmental hazards and reduce the possibility of children being exposed to harmful chemicals while at school. A few examples of environmental hazards include poor indoor air quality from old ventilation and heating systems, the build-up of unhealthy molds, routine application of pesticides within (and outside) many Vermont schools, and the use of harmful chemicals found in certain cleaning fluids and solvents, school laboratories, and art supplies.
In 1998 VPIRG conducted a survey of Vermont schools to determine the extent of chemicals found in the classroom. We learned that 75% of schools surveyed used pesticides on a monthly basis, while 88% of those surveyed used maintenance products containing chemicals linked to negative health effects. Headaches, respiratory problems, stomach aches, and behavioral and learning disabilities are all common symptoms of environmental health exposures.
While the survey was conducted, a student in Newport Vermont was rushed to the hospital after losing consciousness because of poor air quality found at North Country Union High School. The school was found to have elevated levels of benzene, styrene, and carbon monoxide, and air circulation within the school was poor. Multiple complaints followed from staff, and at least 76 students cited headaches and stomach problems. At first, the school administration was very reluctant to acknowledge that there was a problem with indoor air quality, but after the threat of a “sick building syndrome” lawsuit from staff, and heightened community activism, the school agreed to look into the issue. Shortly thereafter with the help of the community and some EPA funding, the school revamped its ventilation system and drastically improved the air quality in the buildings, creating a much safer environment.
The North Country Union High School is not an isolated case of air quality hazards in Vermont’s schools. In fact, the state legislature recognized that there could be serious health consequences from environmental hazards and passed a law in 2000 known as the “School Environmental Health Act,” or Act 125. The law requires the Vermont State Department of Health to create a voluntary program for all schools that will reduce harmful exposures to chemicals, and lead to improved environmental health conditions in schools.
Although the intent behind the law was clear in that it was to improve school environmental health, unfortunately the implementation of this law has been dismal. There are three reasons why this law has not yet improved environmental health at a single school since 2000. First there is inadequate funding and resources available for implementation of an effective statewide program. Second, there is strong reluctance from many school administrators in recognizing that indoor air quality and environmental conditions at schools can relate to or cause serious health problems among students and staff. Third, the act does not require Vermont’s schools to actually take steps toward making buildings and facilities safer. This act is not well designed to protect children.
Since the law’s inception, VPIRG has worked hard with state officials to further the implementation of Act 125. Sadly, the lack of funding and of public awareness has significantly delayed the improvement of environmental health in Vermont’s Schools. Vermont desperately needs federal assistance with funding and with resources to make its schools and buildings greener and safer for children.
VPIRG is currently conducting a new survey with the University of Vermont, and the Vermont Department of Education to determine the extent of pesticide use within and outside of Vermont’s schools and buildings. Many states require advanced notification to parents when pesticides are applied at school, and the use of integrated pest management policies in schools. Integrated pest management policies, and pest-proofing of schools is a highly cost effective way for our schools to improve their infrastructure and to reduce the use of toxic chemicals. Vermont’s schools lack these requirements, and so far many completed surveys are showing that schools are not engaging in integrated pest management, are potentially exposing children to pesticides at school, and are not warning parents of pending applications. Nor are they taking appropriate steps to pest-proof their buildings and facilities.
Although this survey only focuses on pesticide use at schools, we strongly believe that poor air quality, mold outbreaks, and other chemical toxic exposures are likely to be found throughout Vermont’s schools. Not implementing Act 125 and not having federal funds or legislation to promote environmental health at schools puts all Vermont’s children at risk. We ask for your assistance in making school buildings and grounds in Vermont, and around the U.S. safer.
Specifically, we are asking for:
Thank you for your consideration of this matter, and for the opportunity to voice concern about school environmental health in Vermont. If I can be of any further assistance to your committee I would be happy to provide more information.
Environmental Health Advocate
141 Main Street, Ste. 6
Montpelier, VT 05602