If you thought sending your child to school in an air-conditioned bus to shield him from pollution and giving him packaged water and food will keep him in good health, think again. Your child is exposed to far greater dangers from the time he’s born.
While ISO and other standards are routinely spoken about for everything from beauty salons to mattresses, we callously ignore the question of safety of children. Regulations for goods and services that children use and are in contact with must be a priority for any nation. Children are exposed to several dangerous chemicals and toxins every day. Clearly, we ought to develop benchmarks to make children’s lives more secure.
Some countries are better than others. For instance, in certain countries, infant products are regulated by federal agencies. In USA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversees child car-seat safety, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission administers mandatory federal standards for cribs, seats, pacifiers, rattles, and toys. There are also general regulations applicable to all products that cover small items an infant could ingest, such as sharp edges, points that can cut and lead in paint. Other countries are more lackadaisical about child safety and the regulations simply don’t exist.
Consequently there is an urgent need to voluntarily mandate and implement safety norms at the school level where children spend the better part of their growing years.
The Dirty Dozen child hazards are:
Pesticides. If a school must use pesticides for any reason, the management must notify parents and teachers a day in advance and use the least toxic materials. Students must not be allowed into the building until the residue has evaporated. Only trained and licensed people should be permitted to spray pesticides. Playgrounds and fields where children play should be sprayed after giving prior notice to teachers and parents.
Colours and paints. Art rooms require proper ventilation. Many art materials contain toxins that could become airborne, irritating the lungs and bronchi. Ideally ventilating systems should have between 15-20 cubic ft of outdoor air per minute per occupant. Care should be taken to ensure that contaminated air does not circulate into other parts of the building through the ventilation system.
Use of pencils. Children should be trained in pencil safety, i.e. not to chew or put pencil tips into their mouths (a habit with children). Schools should encourage the use of mechanical pencils with replaceable lead shafts.
Use of chalk in classrooms. Eliminate the use of chalk, which is a bronchial irritant, by using white boards and markers. If this is not possible, teachers should ensure they don’t leave bits of chalk in classrooms. They should also remove whiteboard markers after class.
New carpeting. Carpets as well as carpet backings should be formaldehyde free.
Playground equipment. Processed or treated wood is often used for playground equipment and picnic tables. Treated wood is injected with copper and arsenic to deter pest infestation. The arsenic, in particular, leaches from the wood and is carcinogenic.
Exhaust fumes from buses and motor vehicles. Schools should make sure that the air intake of ventilating systems is not in an area where cars or bus engines idle and the incoming air is laden with vehicle exhaust fumes. Children should not wait at bus stops where buses idle for long periods. Less polluting fuels, such as CNG, can also cause toxic fumes!
Damp areas and carpeting. Mould thrives in dampness and many children and adults are allergic to it. Therefore wet areas should be ‘scrubbed’ with dehumidifiers and the residue vacuumed away with machines.
Chemistry laboratories. This is an area where children are most exposed to toxic chemicals. Therefore labs using hazardous materials should be properly ventilated. Students must be provided with face masks and safety goggles during experiments.
Photocopy machines and laser printers. Copiers and printers release ozone, so the rooms that house them should be adequately ventilated. Ozone is detrimental to lung function.
Testing for radon and lead. Radon is a colourless, odourless, tasteless radioactive gas that emanates from rock and soil. At high levels it is a human lung carcinogen. Radon can be easily isolated and inexpensively remedied. Drinking water should be tested for lead seeping from pipes, particularly in old school buildings.
Tobacco smoke. Schools should be smoke-free environments, as required by law in most countries, as passive ingestion of tobacco smoke is carcinogenic.
Children are at greater risk from poisons and harmful materials than most adults. Their body defences are not fully developed; their rapidly growing tissues are easily damaged by toxins or lack of oxygen and nutrients; they absorb relatively more materials through their intestines; their brains and nervous systems are still developing, making these organs vulnerable to adverse effects of toxic materials.
Children may display symptoms of illnesses in school, get better at home and go back to school again. It’s not that all homes offer a clean environment in terms of chemical exposure; it’s just that schools tend to suffer greater toxic environments. Moreover in school the combination of crowded classrooms and activity generates a greater quantum and variety of pollutants and toxins. Therefore schools are a good starting point for devising and implementing regulation to eliminate pollutants and wastes.