Clean Out the Chemicals

About the author: Jeff Maurer manages Web content and does communications work for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

When my mom first starting teaching in 1971, duck-and-cover drills – in which students were taught to curl up underneath their desks in the event of a nuclear attack – were still in vogue. Apparently, desks were much sturdier back then – strong enough to withstand a nuclear blast.

When we lived in Kentucky, Mom taught at a school that practiced regular tornado drills. By the 1990s, teachers were being taught how to treat cuts in ways that prevent the spread of hepatitis and HIV, and “lockdown” drills became common after the Columbine shootings. By the time Mom retired last year, school safety training had been expanded to include managing students’ gluten, seafood, and peanut allergies.

Clearly, student safety in schools came a long way during Mom’s career. But in all of her years as a teacher, my mom was never once taught how to safely manage chemicals that are commonly found in schools.

That needs to change. School science labs, trade shops, and janitorial areas – any area of a school – can contain hazardous chemicals that can be harmful to students and teachers if improperly managed. Beyond the obvious health hazards, chemical spills can result in lost school days, cleanup costs, and liability.

Chemical management should be part of every school’s safety routine. Thankfully, EPA’s Schools Chemical Cleanout Campaign (SC3) is making it easy for schools to clear out unneeded chemicals and make sure that needed chemicals are properly managed. The SC3 provides a wealth of resources – including a promotional video and a tool kit for starting a chemical management campaign – to teachers, parents, school administrators, community groups, and just about anyone concerned with safe chemical management in schools.

It works, too; schools across the country are implementing successful chemical management campaigns. In my area, the Arlington Public Schools system removed 600 pounds of chemicals from its secondary schools. That hits home for me because my sister – following in Mom’s footsteps – works in the public school system here in Northern Virginia.

For my sister’s safety and for everyone’s safety, I’m glad that safe chemical management in schools is catching on. This week is Teacher Appreciation Week; I think that a good way to celebrate might be to see if the schools in your area are practicing safe chemical management. After all, the danger posed by hazardous chemicals, unlike certain other safety concerns, can’t be neutralized by simply hiding beneath a desk.

More information about healthy school environments is available online.