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If you have ever gone on a whale-watching excursion or watched videos of a whale in its natural habitat, you probably saw the whale surface for a short time and dive underwater, where it moves about for an extended time before resurfacing. The health of the ocean is crucial to sustaining the ecosystem that thrives beneath the water’s surface.

Consider this, ‘Americans spend more time inside buildings than some whale species spend underwater.’ Most people spend ten percent of their time outdoors. We spend ninety percent of the time indoors where we want learners to be healthy and thrive. Many learners and staff spend eight hours of their school day indoors.

Thoughts about the environmental and health implications of the materials used to construct and furnish schools are not always on the minds of teachers, administrators, or parents. We rely on others for addressing the requirements either when the building is built, during renovations, or replacement purchases of furniture or equipment. In many cases, these changes occur sporadically every twelve – fifteen years. While research that informed the sustainability movement began over twenty-five years ago, more recent research has illuminated the impact of building materials on human health and well-being. The most recent research has informed new standards for constructing buildings that consider the impact building materials have on human health and the environment.

Many schools were built before the standards took effect. In the United States the average age of school buildings in the K-12 sector is 40+ years, which is the life cycle of most buildings. Across the Provinces of Canada the average age of school buildings in the K-12 sector is 20+ years. Considering the planning of any new school project begins five to seven years in advance of completion, many of the schools in the United States and Canada built in the 1990s most likely were not built with the current knowledge on the impact of the built environment on the health and well-being of learners and staff.

In addition to aging permanent structures, school communities add modular classrooms in response to the ebb and flow of demographic shifts and migration patterns. These structures present challenges to air quality control, thermal management, and the sustainability of materials used in to build and assemble the structures.

It is unrealistic to rely on educators to know the properties and ingredients of all building materials that make up the environments in schools. Given economic constraints on school systems, it is unrealistic to believe a community will overhaul an entire building to meet current criteria for health and well-being in the built environment. However, there are opportunities to influence decisions made during the planning process for new construction, renovations to existing buildings, and installation of modular classrooms. Small incremental changes can make a big difference in making a building healthier. The question becomes, “Where do we begin?”

The most effective way to make a building healthier is to work within the 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building framework, developed out of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Each of the foundations found in the Foundations for Student Success document provides a roadmap for mitigating the harmful effects of older building construction. For this paper, we will focus on the implications of a few of the materials used in building construction and interiors referenced in the document.

The EPA banned many legacy environmental pollutants and contaminants in the 1970s; however, they continue to exist in our buildings. Today, these pollutants and contaminants are in furniture, flooring, drywall, ceiling tiles, wall insulation, electronics, water pipes, and grout. This list is by no means exhaustive. Some of the contaminants considered to be legacy include:

  • Lead – Lead is most commonly found in lead water pipes and some paints in buildings constructed before 1986.
  • Asbestos – Asbestos is a mineral most commonly found in interior building insulation. While asbestos is still used in the U.S., it is highly regulated by the EPA.
  • PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) – PCBs are a class of chemicals used in light ballasts, caulk, and exterior paint.
  • Phthalates “tha-lates” – Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), most commonly found in flooring, sealants, adhesives, and upholstery.
  • Flame retardant chemicals are commonly used in commercial and consumer products (e.g., foam furniture cushions) to meet flammability standards. Furniture, cushions, and carpet padding that contain polyurethane foam are most likely to contain flame retardant chemicals.

All of these materials and chemicals are toxic, therefore, closely regulated. They break down slowly and accumulate in our bodies over time. Because these materials and chemicals (or their by-products) are inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, they can pose adverse health impacts on our body systems.

Exposure to lead is linked to slowed growth, as well as learning and behavior challenges. Asbestos exposure is linked to mesothelioma and chronic lung disease. Health risks resulting from exposure to PCBs include endocrine disruption, neurological challenges, and multiple types of cancer impacting different body systems. Phthalates are known as an endocrine disruptor and have been linked to asthma in children. Exposure to the toxic chemicals in some flame retardant treatments includes endocrine and thyroid disruption, compromised immune system, and cancer.

The best options for limiting exposure to toxic building materials are awareness and transparency. First, become familiar with the Health Product Declaration (HPD) Collaborative. This group developed HPDs listing ingredients in products and potential health hazards associated with the products. For example, whenever you purchase new furniture or equipment, require transparency through an HPD from your vendor. Most Requests for Proposals (RFPs) require manufacturers to submit HPDs, so this is not an unreasonable request.

“Knowledge leads to empowerment. Many educators and school leaders have used their understanding of healthy buildings to model behavior for the students by building outdoor and indoor learning into the curriculum and implementing low-cost/no-cost improvements to the physical environment around them. We are not going to change the world in one day, but we can make a difference every day.” – Susan Whitmer

Learning about the materials in the environment around us can be complex and overwhelming. You are probably wondering, “What can I do to make a difference in my school or community right now?” There are several actions you can take today to improve the health of your school or workplace. Here are a few low-cost/no-cost ideas:

  • Step outside of your classroom, school, or office and then walk back in. What do you notice? Are there areas where you could eliminate the clutter that is a dust collector? Are there areas that could use additional attention to cleaning?
  • Make sure that your mechanical systems are working correctly. Clear the areas of any storage or furniture around the air and heat vents that may block air circulation.
  • Check your drinking water source to ensure the fountains are clean and the water is at the correct temperature. Affordable monitoring devices are available.
  • Inventory your cleaning supplies to be sure that they do not contain harmful chemicals. Ask your supplier to provide a detailed list of chemicals to ensure they meet current standards.
  • Build a culture of care around the relationship between your students, your staff, and the built environment.
  • Limit the number of types of furniture and tools in your spaces. Try to purchase items that serve more than one purpose.

Author Susan Whitmer: Susan Whitmer, Principal Consultant at Susan Whitmer Studios, WELL AP. Her focus is on creating human-centered experiences that are inclusive + equitable and promote well-being. Susan has written and co-authored numerous peer-reviewed white papers, articles, and book chapters on inclusive design and learning spaces, including Open House International, National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, International Perspectives on Higher Education Research (Vol. 12), SCUP’s Planning for Higher Education Journal, and Current Issues in Education Journal. In addition, she serves an Advisory role at the FLEXspace community, International WELL Building Institute (IWBI™) and Learning Spaces Collaboratory.