Co-opting Children's Health: How the Shutdown Stopped Free Help for Schools and Parents

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) celebrates October as Children's Health Month. Children are more vulnerable to environmental hazards than the adults around them. They breathe more air per pound of body weight, eat and drink proportionately more, their skin is more permeable, and they have behaviors that may give them more exposures to hazards, such as hand to mouth, and sitting and playing on the floor. They also cannot recognize hazards or describe their health issues.

This year, they are getting quite the late start.

Thanks to the shutdown, EPA has not been celebrating Child Health Month with educational activities, at least not yet. For example, the all-day "Healthy Schools - Healthy Children Conference" sponsored by the School District of Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the American Lung Association of the Mid Atlantic, and U.S. EPA/Region 3 to be held this week has been postponed.

Here is what Philadelphia-area schools, community groups and parents are missing.

After the welcomes, the keynoter would talk to you about children; how and why they are biologically different. How they outnumber adults in schools. You could ask EPA or the federal Centers for Disease Control for this information, but they are closed.

Then a speaker would address the hazards commonly present in schools nationwide: lead, radon, pests and pesticides, PCBs, asbestos, molds and schools inadequately sited, designed, ventilated, cleaned and repaired; cite the scientific literature that backs up this field; cite data on children' asthma absenteeism and falling test scores, and how school personnel get asthma on the job from work exposures. Again, you could ask EPA or ask NIOSH, but they are closed.

Other conference speakers would talk about U.S. EPA's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools free training and grants program, followed by how to conduct a school "walk-through" for a preliminary assessment of problems: the color pictures are shocking--crumbling walls, saggy ceilings, pest droppings, moldy carpets, cleaning problems, rusted shut ventilating units, dampness--all of which can impact asthma at school. But you can't ask EPA for help or for an interpretation of regulations on drinking water, lead safe renovations or asbestos. EPA is closed.

Another speaker would cover U.S. EPA's School Chemical Clean Out Program for safer management of chemicals stored in schools, and how EPA has uncovered explosives and flammables stored without ventilation, or found 42 pounds of elemental mercury in a school in a Cool Whip container sealed with duct tape. But again, EPA is closed and the program was de-funded.

A speaker from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) -- also closed -- would lead you through its new, easy-to-use guidance on mold assessments. And more speakers will address key topics: how to find and use greener, healthier products in schools, and what design features are important to schools construction to help boost attendance and achievement.

Finally, the Souderton Area (PA) School District Environmental Science Club student members would have discussed their recent work and their statewide student environmental conference.

But you can't ask or hear from these hard-working children, because while the district and the kids were still hard at work, Congress dragged its feet and failed to reach a compromise before the government was forced to shut down.

EPA and the other agencies have been shut down and many practical, user-friendly EPA programs and grants to help schools prevent indoor air problems, problems in chemical management, and problems in mold prevention and remediation -- have been closed.

Thank you, Congress, for putting together a deal that opens up shut-down agencies. However, you have put together a temporary agreement that could shut down our government, once again jeopardizing the future of children.

I guess no one in Congress has a school-aged child with asthma.