Environmental Justice: Protecting Our Schools

By Lara Lasky

All kids, no matter where they live, deserve the opportunity to learn in a safe environment. Poor indoor air quality — IAQ — in schools can lead to lower academic performance and increased absences. Kids are the ones who suffer the most from unhealthy indoor environments since they spend about 90 percent of their time indoors. Unfortunately, not all kids have clean indoor air where they live, learn and play. That’s where environmental justice, better known as EJ, comes in.

The goal of EJ is quite simple: to ensure that everyone in the U.S. enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment. It means reducing environmental risk disparities and educating the community about what these environmental risks are. And for kids, it means making sure that every child has a clean, safe learning environment.

In many places, communities promote EJ through EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Program, which helps school districts develop a plan of action for IAQ management. Many low- and no-cost components of EJ are already included in the program, such as strategies for integrated pest management and reducing environmental asthma triggers. You can learn more about EJ and the IAQ Tools for Schools Program at the upcoming IAQ Tools for Schools National Symposium, January 13 to15 in Washington, D.C.

Here in Region 5 (which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin and 35 tribes) schools and districts promote EJ in a variety of ways. For example, the Healthy Schools Campaign works with schools and community groups throughout Chicago in an effort to reduce disparities in asthma and obesity in schools. And, believe it or not, promoting EJ in your own community might be easier than you think.

Start small and build on existing programs. Engage kids in efforts to identify and reduce environmental health hazards in school design, maintenance and construction through education, technical assistance and advocacy.  Have science teachers create Green Squad projects — as San Francisco Public Schools did — for students to learn about and assess environmental conditions in their schools. Partner with local hospitals to offer asthma screening for children. Start small and grow. Our kids deserve it.

About the author: Lara Lasky has been with EPA for five years and currently serves as the Region 5 environmental justice program coordinator.