Toxic Chemicals in Schools

chairs in school
Source: Pixabay

School is your child’s second home, a place where they spend one-third of their day. Yet, student, faculty and staff health is compromised and adversely affected everyday by toxic chemicals found in cleaning products, pesticides, and food served in the school. As schools become increasingly laden with toxic chemicals, the issue of chemicals in schools becomes ever more crucial.

Toxicants commonly
found in schools:
(paint, drinking water, cleaning products)
Air pollution
(toxics from chemicals in cleaning products)
(classrooms, cafeterias, school lawns, playground, playing fields)
wood in playgrounds)
(cleaning products, glue,
dry erase markers, etc.)
(cleaning products, glue,
dry erase markers, etc.)
(cleaning products, glue,
dry erase markers, etc.)

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at least half of the approximately 53 million students and five million staff “may be exposed to polluted indoor air, lead, asbestos, chemical fumes, pesticides, molds and other toxins.” Traditional cleaning products and pesticides contain harmful chemicals that are known to cause cancer, asthma, reproductive disorders and major organ damage, among other health ailments. In fact, “one out of every three cleaning chemicals used to clean school buildings in the United States is known to cause human health or environmental problems,” explains Mary Jo Snavely, the Center for a New American Dream’s Responsible Purchasing Network/Marketplace Associate. Health alone is not the only negative outcome of these toxicants; they can also cause a dramatic drop in student performance and school attendance.

This means that now is the time for action. There are healthier alternatives and solutions to reducing school toxicants, in the form of community organizations working to ensure that schools are as toxicant-free as possible. So now it is up to parents and even the students themselves to take the initiative and begin the process of minimizing toxins in schools.

One organization working towards creating a toxic-free school environment is the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). Through CHEJ’s Green Flag Program, students advocate for school-wide reforms to make their schools safer and healthier.

In cooperation with CHEJ, parents, students, and faculty can form a “Green Committee” that conducts an environmental assessment of the school, such as looking at cleaning products being used, how pests are controlled, products used for construction materials and the ventilation system. CHEJ’s Stacey Gonzalez explains that a Green Committee is necessary because “you need them to be part of the conversation and keep the school toxin-free. The Committee holds the school responsible to continue [with green improvements] and move forward.”

Another component of the Green Flag Program is the joint project between CHEJ and GreenFaith, which Stacey Kennealy, project coordinator for GreenFaith, describes as “an interfaith environmental coalition based in New Jersey” and is open to all schools. 

Student Shayna Schor, believes the changes she helped make through her school’s GreenFaith Program will have a lasting effect. As Shayna explains, “People now know that by incorporating even the most minor eco-friendly differences into our daily routines, wecontribute toa healthierfuture of our planet.”

The Green Flag/GreenFaith Program does not have to stop at schools either. Adi Segal, another student at Solomon Schechter Day School, started a Green Camp Initiative at her summer camp, where recycling was “effectively accomplished throughout the bunks and a large-scale ‘ad campaign’ was launched to increase awareness about ‘green’ living in camp.”

Another solution, Stacey suggests, is to “look at what the contract says with vendors the school purchases products from.” Find out if they mention anything about using toxic-free chemicals.  If they do, it is easy to find healthy cleaning methods that should be part of the contract. There are hundreds of cleaning products certified by Green Seal and/or EcoLogo. New Dream's responsible purchasing center features a list of recommended certified products.

If you would like your school to join CHEJ’s Green Flag Program, you can register for free at

Another solution is establishing a Green Cleaning Program at your school to protect students, faculty and staff health against toxic chemicals without harming the environment. This program replaces toxic chemical-loaded cleaning products with certified green cleaning ones.

Developing and implementing a Green Cleaning Program does not have to be expensive either. There are many manufacturers who offer “certified” green cleaning chemicals that are cost-competitive compared to traditional products. So, find suppliers with “certified” green cleaning products and create guidelines for their use in your school.

Five Simple Steps to a Healthy School Environment
1. Switch to green cleaning products.
2. Introduce green equipment and supplies.
3. Adopt green cleaning procedures.
4. Use green paper and plastic products.
5. Share the responsibility.

An additional solution to reducing the amount of toxicants in schools is to ensure that the school serves locally grown food in the cafeteria. The food served in schools is especially critical to a toxic-chemical-free environment because “research has shown that kids are 2-3 times more susceptible to absorbing the harmful toxins in food, on a pound-by-pound basis, than adults,” explains Anupama Joshi, Occidental College’s Center for Food & Justice Director. Anupama also notes that “the school meal is the major meal of the day for low-income kids.” Therefore, we need to “be a lot more careful about the food served in cafeterias and track the source of food.”

Since many local producers are turning to organic growing methods, local food usually means fewer pesticides in kids’ school lunches.

The Farm-to-School lunch program, headed by The Center for Food and Justice, connects schools with local farms to provide healthy cafeteria food, while incorporating nutrition-based curriculum and supporting local farmers. According to Anupama, “Farm-to-School focuses on providing healthy, safer alternatives. Because smaller-scale farmers use sustainable methods of farming, even if the food is not certified organic, it is still a better quality.”

The program is nationally based, with 10,943 schools in 34 states currently involved. The schools that take part in this program buy farm-fresh, local foods, such as fruits, vegetables, eggs and beans, and serve them in the cafeteria.

The program not only consists of healthier food options in the school cafeteria, but also education about where the food is coming from and how it affects our health. It also includes an education component for cafeteria staff on dealing with fresh products by properly cooking, cleaning, and presenting the food to the students so it is an attractive option for them. Schools also participate in a gardening or recycling project or a waste management program, as well as having hands-on experience with field trips to the farms themselves and cooking demonstrations in the classroom.

To implement the Farms-to-Schools program at your school, you can order a free information resource packet from the Farm-to-School Web site at The Web site provides information on local contacts to get in touch with and get a sense about what’s happening locally in terms of options for connecting with local farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also runs a similarly focused program called Small Farms/School Meals. To learn more, check out the agency’s “Step-by-Step Guide on How to Bring Small Farms and Local Schools Together,” which is available online at

A fourth solution to reducing the amount of toxic chemicals in schools involves the elimination of pesticides sprayed on the school buildings themselves, which are extremely hazardous to children’s health. There are several important steps parents and students can follow to ensure that their school is pesticide-free.

Parents can help protect the health of children by working to establish Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in their schools, a proven alternative to pesticide use. IPM is a progressive process that starts with the least harmful methods of pest prevention and progresses to more intense chemical methods until the problem is solved.

With IPM, non-chemical methods of managing pests are used first. These methods can include restricting where food is eaten, moving the dumpster away from the school, repairing and maintaining leaking pipes and pressure cleaning food service areas.

If all non-chemical methods of managing pests do not work and a pest problem still persists, requiring the need for pesticide use,a school's pest companyshould use the least-toxic pesticide available, only applying the pesticide to the infested areas. Boric acid is a good option, as it has relatively low toxicity compared to other pesticides, does not evaporate into the air and therefore does not cause indoor air pollution. It is important to use boric acid with less than one percent of inert ingredients so you have a better idea about what you are applying and the risks involved, compared to other pesticides. Only use a more chemically-powerful pesticide if none of the above options work. And in the case that a stronger pesticide is absolutely necessary, use it in as minimal an area as possible.

 To establish IPM at your school, the Iowa School’s IPM System recommends the following procedure: First, talk with the principal and teacher about what is being done to control pests in the school. Second, find other parents who share concerns about pesticide exposure. Third, form a school IPM advisory committee with the school’s administration and adopt an IPM policy. For more information, go to

Other ideas are to notify the school community when pesticides are used and provide resources about the use of pesticides. Students can also get involved by logging pest sightings, writing articles in newsletters, or giving class presentations on the dangers of pesticides and possible solutions, such as IPM.

An additional great solution to protecting your school against toxic chemicals is becoming a political agent. Snavely at the Center for a New American Dream says, Take action by sending a letter to local and state officials and other community members encouraging them to use safer greener products.”       

For sample letters and instructions on effective strategies to involve school and government staff in keeping toxic chemicals out of schools, go to the Center for a New American Dream’s Web site at




The Center for a New American Dream

Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Green Flag Program: (703) 237-2249

Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign

Environmental Health News

Healthy Schools Network:

Healthy Schools Campaign: “The Quick & Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools” brochure and CD-Rom, (888) HSC-1810

Inform Inc.

Information on Integrated Pest Management in Schools:

Integrated Pest Management for Iowa Schools

National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency