Cafeterias are competing with on-campus snack bars, vending machines, and stores that sell candy and soda. You would think schools wouldn’t be allowed to sell these items, but they are. They can’t sell them in the cafeterias during lunch and breakfast periods, but they can during other hours. They can also sell these foods in other areas of campus–even right outside the cafeteria door–any time they want. And although schools can’t sell soda in cafeterias during lunch, they can give it away, says Wootan, of Reimaginingeducation.org. “[It’s] a way to entice kids to eat in the school meals program,” she explains.
Companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi offer schools hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in exchange for exclusive vending machine contracts. And financially pinched schools can’t resist. “This is such an incredibly bad idea, because the school enters into a contract that puts them in the position of encouraging kids to drink more soda so that they can make more money. They often get bonuses if kids drink more,” says Wootan.
What You Can Do: Parents can help change their children’s desire for high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods, say experts. Serve healthy and delicious food at home, and teach your children about nutrition. Pack lunches if you’re not satisfied with your school’s offerings, and involve older kids in deciding what to pack.
Find out if your school sells candy and soda, and if so, protest to get rid of them. Get other parents involved.
In the Gym
Along with a healthy diet, kids need physical activity. Students in elementary school should get 150 minutes a week (30 minutes a day) of physical education (PE), and students in middle and high school should get 225 minutes a week (45 minutes a day), according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), the American Heart Association, and CSPI. But that’s only a recommendation; the government does not mandate that schools provide PE. It’s up to the states and individual school districts to impose such rules. The result: In 1999, only 29 percent of students nationwide attended a daily physical education class, down from 4z percent just eight years earlier, according to a CDC report.
Chronic inactivity puts kids at risk for obesity, and research shows that people who are overweight as children have a much higher risk of becoming overweight adults, increasing the likelihood they’ll develop diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
PE classes are often scrapped when budgets need cutting, and more schools are axing PE to make time for additional academic classes. But ironically, students who get adequate physical education also learn better, says Judith Young, Ph.D., executive director of the NASPE in the Washington, D.C., area.
“It’s not that many schools don’t want to provide PE,” she says. “It’s just that there’s not enough time in the school day and not enough money.”
What You Can Do: In 2001, Congress set aside $400 million over the next five years to fund the Physical Education for Progress Act. To get money, schools need to apply, so call yours and make them aware of the program. For information on how to apply, visit pe.central.vt.edu /professional/pepbill/pepmoney.html.
Make sure your children exercise outside of school as well. Take them for walks, and encourage them to participate in sports that interest them. Establish an exercise club in your neighborhood with children of similar ages–for inline skating, for example, or biking.
In School Buildings
Our children’s health is put at risk by more than bad lunches and a lack of exercise. Their surroundings are often unhealthy, too. Experts cite poor indoor air quality as one of the most troublesome problems; it affects 1 in 5 public schools, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in Washington, D.C. A wide range of factors can contaminate the air students breathe, including mold and mildew, lead paint, radon, and emissions from carpets. Poor building maintenance exacerbates the problem: 29 percent of schools report unsatisfactory heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, reports the NCES. It also says schools need about $127 billion to bring them into good overall condition.
The health problems that may arise from indoor air pollution include asthma, cancer (from radon), headaches, neurological problems, and stomach problems, says Shelly Rosenblum, a San Francisco-based environmental engineer for the EPA. Any or all of these, he says, can also affect children’s productivity in school and their ability to learn. Asthma, for example, is one of the leading causes of student absenteeism, accounting for more than 10 million missed school days per year.
Despite the link between air quality and health, no standards have been set for air quality in schools. Rosenblum says that’s because the EPA needs conclusive scientific evidence to support such standards. “Right now, we don’t have the level of science to say that below some level of indoor air pollution it is safe and above it is unsafe,” he says.
Pesticide use in school buildings is another potentially serious threat to our children’s health. The EPA regulates pesticides, but most permissible exposure limits are based on studies related to a 160-pound man. “The amount of toxins a full-grown man can handle are by far higher than what a 50-pound 5- or 6-year-old can handle,” says Jan Stensland, an indoor environmental quality consultant in Kensington, Calif.
Because children are still developing, they are at a greater risk for potential harm from pesticide exposure, say experts. Pesticides have been linked to dizziness, nausea, and long-term neurological, developmental, and reproductive disorders, according to the EPA. In 1996, the EPA began testing already-approved pesticides to establish permissible exposure levels for infants and children, but it’s a slow process. The agency expects to be only about two-thirds done by August 2002. It hopes to complete the testing by 2006, says Dave Deegan, a Washington, D.C.-based EPA spokesperson.
What You Can Do: Call and ask school officials about their air-quality and pest-management policies. If you don’t like what you hear, work with other parents or contact your local PTA (to locate offices, visit www.pta.org/ptacommunity) to initiate change. You can start by suggesting the school take advantage of tools offered by the EPA. Its free Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools kit instructs schools about how to inexpensively fix indoor-air problems. The EPA will also send a free video on how to operate and maintain ventilation systems properly. For more information, call 800-438-4318 or visit www.epa.gov/iaq/schools/index.html.
Regarding pesticides, the EPA encourages schools to adopt Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices, which aim to minimize or eliminate the use of toxic pesticides. You can learn more about IPM by visiting the EPA website at www.epa.gov/pesticides/ipm.
On the Playground
Our children aren’t faced with health threats only inside of school. They also confront them on the playground. One problem is playground equipment built from pressure-treated wood that has been preserved with chromated copper arsenate (CCA). CCA contains arsenic (an insecticide), which can leach out of wood and onto the hands and clothing of children and into the surrounding soil, says Andrew Port, an environmental health expert with the Whitman Companies in East Brunswick, N.J. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, according to the EPA.
In February, the EPA and the wood preservation industry embarked on a voluntary phase-out of the use of CCA pressure-treated wood in most consumer products by Dec. 31, 2003; after that, the EPA will not allow its use in residential products (which includes playgrounds). Although a fix for the future, this agreement doesn’t address the current problem. “Even if [the use of pressure-treated wood] were stopped today, we have millions of board feet of playground structures … [still] in use,” says Tom Lent, regional coordinator for the Healthy Building Network, an environmental and health activists group in Washington, D.C.
The EPA hasn’t mandated the immediate removal of this equipment or banned its use because no conclusive evidence exists that CCA-treated wood poses a health risk, says Dave Deegan, an EPA spokesperson. Until the EPA has that evidence, it can’t mandate anything. Currently, it is performing a comprehensive risk assessment of CCA and expects to release its findings for review in 2003.
Adding to this possible health hazard are the pesticides sprayed on school grounds. These outdoor pesticides are usually more potent and stay around longer than pesticides used indoors, explains Port. And children are right in the line of fire. Says Lent: “Kids play with the grass and soil and play structures that get sprayed with pesticides, and thus have direct contact.”
What You Can Do: Instruct your children to wash their hands after coming in from recess, and ask their teachers to help ensure their compliance.
Ask school administrators if wood in the playground is pressure treated with CCA. If they don’t know, ask them to test it. Schools can purchase $20 test kits from the Healthy Building Network either by calling 202-232-4108 or visiting www.healthybuilding.net. Suggest the use of nontoxic alternatives like recycled plastic or redwood and cedar, which are pest-resistant, says Lent. The EPA recommends applying a coating product, like an oil-based semitransparent stain, to pressure-treated wood on a regular basis. (Studies suggest this can reduce the amount of CCA that leaches from wood, according to the EPA.)