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Claire Barnett's picture

It is a no-brainer: Healthy children are the key to the future of America. Understanding that children are more vulnerable to environmental hazards than the adults around them, and knowing that children cannot identify hazards or get out of harm’s way, our elected officials should ensure that all children have healthy outdoor and indoor air where they live, learn, and play.

Polluted outdoor air can be thick enough to block the sun. But exposures to pollutants indoors can be 100-1,000 more intense than the pollutants outdoors, says the Institute of Medicine. A newer study has found that our brains’ executive functions – the tasks of thinking, acting, solving problems, and retrieving information – degrade when indoor carbon dioxide levels (what we exhale) exceed 1,000 PPM. High CO2 levels are also indicators of other accumulated indoor pollutants. Symptoms include headaches, poor attention, fatigue, forgetfulness, nausea, eye problems, and difficulty breathing. And, of course, attendance, speed and accuracy at desk work, and test scores all drop.

The causes of indoor air pollution are multiple. Fortunately, US EPA has leading programs and expertise in this complex area. Most problems are easily avoided or prevented if building owners are educated about issues, such as school buildings sited by highways, in wet areas, or other hazards; poor building design; inadequate ventilation; inoperable windows; toxic building materials; pesticides sprays and hazardous cleaning products; inadequate cleaning and maintenance; leaks that lead inevitably to decay and molds; and legacy toxics such as PCBs, lead, and mercury.

But let’s be specific for a moment – what does this mean to parent of a first-grader looking forward to starting school? Suppose the following: Due to lack of funds for school renovation, the 50-year old wing of the building where the classroom is located has a broken ventilation system. CO2 levels are commonly 1,500 to 2,000 PPM.  The overhead fluorescent lights are original to the school, meaning that the stains on the fixtures are toxic PCB leaks from the old ballasts. The classroom windows don’t open. There are mouse droppings on the threadbare, damp carpeting and molds growing through the ceiling tiles. The school nurse’s schedule has been reduced. Custodial work has been out-sourced to a vendor who works only weekends. By Monday morning the school reeks of acrid cleaning chemicals. No surprise, last year, children reported headaches and tummy aches, test scores were down, and asthma episodes were up. For this parent, the outlook is clear – more trips to the doctor, more meds, and more time away from work to care for a sick child.

Members of Congress would not tolerate these conditions for themselves or their children. But it is already a fact of life for too many children. Yet, the federal Sequester Law could take effect in just a few weeks. At that point, EPA will need to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its discretionary programs such as Indoor Environments, Children’s Health Protection, and Environmental Justice, and to other programs that target outdoor air, asthma, homes, child care, and healthy school environments. Education will chop $4 billion in funds aimed at high needs students. CDC will lose more ground to the asthma epidemic.

It’s a no-brainer: Rather than threatening our children’s health and ability to learn, and thus our country’s future, shouldn’t our elected officials find ways to protect and invest in a healthy future for all children?  Support EPA and support Clean Air – at home, at school, and in every community – for all children.

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