Schools, Children’s Health and the Environment

By Shao Lin and Christine Kielb

How do environmental hazards and policies affect children’s health and school performance?

Group photo of health schools research team

Healthy Schools Group, from L to R: Melissa Frisbee , Nazia Saiyed, Christine Kielb, Cristian Pantea, Amanda St. Louis, Michele Herdt-Losavio, Neil Muscatiello, Shao Lin.

Thanks to support from the EPA Science To Achieve Results (STAR) program, we explored those questions. Our project is the first to addresses multiple aspects of environmental health and schools, such as developing indicators related to school locations, and how to develop methodologies for assessing and improving school health.

With EPA support, we are: 1) developing and enhancing Environmental Public Health Indicators (EPHI) representing environmental hazards, children’s school performance, and health; 2) exploring new methodologies for assessing exposure sources; 3) assessing how school environments, along with location and socio-economic status affect children’s health; and 4) evaluating the effectiveness of efforts to protect children’s environmental health in New York, such as the New York State Clean air School Bus Program and school bus idling regulations.

EPA support also enabled us to extend or continue our previous activities, including: tracking how school building conditions and asthma hospitalizations change over time in New York; surveying school nurses, custodians, district facility directors, and teachers to identify environmental problems—and potential solutions—facing schools; and examining how the surrounding neighborhood, specifically a school’s proximity to facilities such as hazardous waste sites, major roads, or airports might increase childhood asthma risk. We also assessed the impacts of healthy school characteristics related to indoor air quality, ventilation, cleanliness, thermal comfort, lighting and acoustics on student attendance, academic performance, and respiratory health.

Image of a schoolWe found some important results. For example, our work showed an association between missed school days and certain poor conditions in the school: visible mold, humidity, poor ventilation, and vermin. Having six or more individual such building-related problems was also associated with student absenteeism. Further, these associations were strongest among schools in lower socioeconomic districts, and in schools attended by younger students. We also found district-level childhood asthma hospitalizations to be related to poor condition of roofing, windows, exterior wall, floor finishes, and boiler or furnace.

When looking at air quality, we found that the control policy for nitrogen oxides (NOx) may have had a positive impact on both state-wide and regional air pollution levels and respiratory health. The positive effect varied by children with different types of respiratory diseases, region, and socio-demographic characteristics.

Our EPA-supported research is providing important data and information, informing our work developing and implementing a sustainable school environmental health program for New York State. We have shared our findings with a Steering Committee consisting of approximately 50 key school environmental health stakeholders, including superintendents, facilities managers, teachers, state agencies, physicians and advocacy groups, and have been working on plans to address existing and emerging environmental problems challenging schools. With these efforts well under way, we fully expect our findings to lead to healthier students, teaches, and other school occupants throughout New York.    

About the Authors: EPA grantee Dr. Shao Lin (MD, Ph.D.), has more than 20 years of experience directing environmental studies, including climate/weather factors, air pollution, heavy traffic exposure, residential exposure to urban air pollution, health effects among New York City residents living near Ground Zero, and a series of school environmental health projects.

Christine  Kielb has worked as an epidemiologist in the area of school environmental health since 2002, and has coordinated various school environmental health projects. She has played a major role in developing, conducting and analyzing surveys of school nurses, custodians facilities managers, and teachers regarding school environments and health. 


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