Environmental Toxicants in Schools

Although most U.S. children under age six spend up to 40 hours a week in childcare settings, little has been done to protect young children from environmental health hazards in childcare and preschools.


Aside from lead, asbestos, and radon, the federal government has not instituted requirements or guidelines to protect children from the same chemical exposures that companies are required to inform workers of in workplace settings. Some of the environmental toxicants in schools that pose the biggest risk for children include:

  1. Air pollutants: The airways of young children are smaller than those of adults. Inhalation of air pollutants that would produce only a slight response in an adult can result in significant obstruction in the airways of a young child. Asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness and the impact of asthma falls disproportionately on African American and certain Hispanic populations and appears to be particularly severe in urban inner cities. Major triggers of asthma attacks include irritants such as commercial products (paints, cleaning agents, pesticides, perfumes, building components (sealants, plastics adhesives, insulation), animal and insect allergens, environmental tobacco smoke, and molds). (Source)

  2. Air quality: Poor indoor air quality can reduce a person’s ability to perform specific mental tasks requiring concentration, calculation, or memory. Air quality problems in schools can arise from mold growth from excessive moisture, chemical emissions, insufficient fresh air, pollutants, and high radon levels. (Source)

  3. Pesticides: Pesticide exposure may result in symptoms ranging from relatively mild headaches and skin rashes to paralysis and death. Some long-term illnesses linked to pesticide expire may be subtle such as neurological disorders or reduced cognitive skills. Delayed onsets and long-term illnesses include cancer, which may appear years after exposure. Pesticide use in schools can be widespread and can include “routine spraying” to prevent the development of problems due to infestation in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, and outdoor areas such as sports fields and the playground. (Source)

  4. Diesel exhaust from school busses: diesel engine emissions contribute to serious public health problems including premature mortality, aggravation of existing asthma, acute respiratory symptoms, chronic bronchitis, and decreased lung function. Diesel exhaust is known to be a major source of fine particles that can lodge into the lungs of children, increasing the likelihood of asthma, chronic bronchitis, and heart disease. (Source)

  5. Mold: Mold grows on virtually any substance when moisture and oxygen are present including ceiling tiles, carpets, wood, and paper. Some molds, such as black molds are known to produce potent toxins which can cause impaired breathing and cause allergies. Children can be exposed to mold in schools if the building has indoor air that is very damp or if there have been water leaks. Mold can grow within 48 hours if the building materials or furnishings are damp. (Source)

  6. Lead: Exposure to lead can cause a variety of health effects including delays in normal physical and mental development in children, slight deficits in attention span, hearing, and learning disabilities. Long-term effects can include stroke, kidney disease, and cancer. A common source of lead in schools and daycare centers includes lead paint and the contaminated dust and soil it generates. Children may also be exposed to lead through drinking water that has elevated concentrations from lead plumbing materials. (Source)