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Who's in charge? A book review of "The Toxic Schoolhouse"

By Kaitlin Butler For more information, to view the press release and to pre-order the book, visit Baywood Publishing Company’s webpage.


Environmental public health has had its forays into the spotlight. Six decades ago, the term “environmental disaster” had people in the US thinking of Love Canal and Chernobyl. Later, maybe Three Mile Island, DDT, or Exxon Valdez. These are a few of the worst man-made environmental disasters that get remembered; a litany to evoke the devastating impacts human behavior can have.


The Toxic Schoolhouse, edited by SEHN board member Madeleine Scammell and Charles Levenstein, puts on record the widespread but unnamed human health disaster happening now in the United States: Our schools are a public health disaster, and children are taking the hit.


The collection of articles, originally conceived as a 2010 special issue of New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, have been updated as chapters and supplemented with additional chapters to fill in the picture on school-based environmental health hazards and how they are impacting children and the people who work there. In three parts, the collection lays out stories and statistics like evidence from a case file, with all indicators pointing to human error. The list of authors is an impressive group of health care professionals, epidemiologists, occupational safety and health professionals with decades worth of collective experience.


The book focuses on toxic exposures – environmental exposures known or presumed to cause harm – with a special emphasis on populations especially vulnerable to exposures in schools, and specifically public schools. More than 53 million children and about 6 million adults spend a substantial part of their days in elementary and secondary schools, secondary only to time spent at home. But, approximately 50% of all public schools – and disproportionately urban schools and ones serving low-income students and students of color – have at least one “unsatisfactory environmental condition”, and are more likely to be sited on waste sites or brownfields, with thin resources for upkeep and repair. Addressing school-based environmental health hazards is an environmental justice issue.


Part I outlines the problem: the vast majority of public school environments, where children and workers spend most of their day, are hazardous. There is no approach for addressing school-based hazards. Lead, listed by the Center for Disease Control as having no safe level of exposure, is the most prevalent toxicant in US school drinking water. There are drinking water regulations that apply to municipal water supplies, but with a ‘regulatory vacuum’ that leaves children unprotected from the consumption of school water.


Children are more vulnerable to environmental hazards; they breathe more air and drink more water per unit of body mass, so if there is pollution, kids receive a larger dose than adults. They are closer to the ground (think pesticides and other sprays), and they have a longer ‘shelf life’ – if time from exposure to toxicity is 40 years, they are more likely to live long enough to develop the toxicity. So what should we think about the fact that in America we’re sending millions of children and workers into toxic environments to spend the majority of their day? Shame might be an appropriate response.


Part II looks at Organizing for Change, opening with two chapters that give voice to the teachers and activists working on the ground on these issues. The following articles give examples of some of the environmental policy innovation happening to address school-based environmental health hazards. For example, the close relationship between NJ’s state affiliates of the National Education Association and the Work Environment Council, who successfully promoted a union-led defense of school environments. Or the coalition of custodians and parents who have been fighting for the use of less toxic cleaners in schools.


Part III draws the readers upstream to ‘Advances in Policy’, presenting relatively progressive policies to address school environment problems. The articles further drive home that people in positions to make different decisions persistently ignore the community’s right to a safe school environment for children, and workers. In the face of marginal laws protecting adults and essentially nonexistent ones for children, every article is written around the theme of accountability and responsibility.


The environmental justice framework present throughout the book begs the question: how are people affected by disproportionate exposure to pollution, and more importantly, what are the issues – economic, social, built environment, etc. -- that underscore the school environment problem?


The collection as a whole is engrossing, stinging, important, offered as “one more arena” for critical environmental health discussions. Fracking, for example, is not discussed, though the editors note it was gaining widespread traction as a public health issue in the media as this book went to press. Reading the articles was also at times humiliating – page after page of evidence of the economic tradeoffs such as where schools are sited and how they are constructed and maintained. Physical school environment quality is an impactful place to start addressing school conditions; school siting, school facility planning, and construction (materials). Some of the negligence is simultaneously shocking and yet common in every case study as to feel standard, which is itself disturbing. The hard statistics and personal narratives work well as moving parts to create a richer picture of the intersections between work, environment, and children. The editors point out that, while community-driven enforcement has historically been critical in calling out the issues, it is not the answer. The answer is farther upstream, near the “tricky fields of implementation” and accountability.


I finished this body of superb work feeling panoramic, exhausted, and, a little solastalgic too: there was that one school that reminded me of my childhood playground, and then, so did that refinery, and then, when exactly did they build that one for coal across the street from my school? The Toxic Schoolhouse gives us stories of real people and places that make us think of home. The authors put front and center the true costs of illnesses and disabilities that students and teachers experience that are often hidden, ignored, or denied. This adds to the solastalgia; that you’ve heard these stories before, too often, in too many places.


And so I finished the book with a sense, also, of a deeper understanding of the real care being administered to confront critical issues impacting our and our children’s future, being carried out in unacknowledged corners, by fierce caregivers, who may just be galvanizing a new environmental advocacy for the coming decade.