Report: Aging Pa. schools ‘uniquely vulnerable’ to environmental health hazards | Wednesday Coffee

The average Pa. school was built during the time of LBJ, years before critical protections were enacted

August 18, 2021 7:19 am
Teacher and students in a classroom.

(Getty Images)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Aging infrastructure has left Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts “uniquely vulnerable” to such environmental health hazards as radon and mold, putting the safety of roughly 1.7 million public school students at risk, a new report concludes.

The report, by the advocacy group Women for a Healthy Environment, calls on state officials to create “an equitable formula,” for school infrastructure investment, and to lift the existing moratorium on a reimbursement program for school construction.

The report found that a majority of public school buildings across the state are within a half-mile of a polluter, and, as a result, that districts that serve more low-income and special education students had a greater prevalence of asthma.

The report also found that those districts were less likely to test for environmental hazards, and less likely to do remediation work when they found such hazards.

“Schools should be a safe place for children to learn, grow and play. The average school building in Pennsylvania was built in 1964 – several years before federal laws that affect healthy indoor environments were enacted,” the group’s executive director, Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, said in a statement.

“Through science we know that exposure to lead, radon and poor air quality for example, affects the development of our children. Healthy learning environments lead to greater academic achievement,” she continued. “Therefore, it is critical that we invest in our schools to assure children a healthier future. This includes taking advantage of the unique opportunity that the American Rescue Plan Act presents to address these environmental risks now.”

Gov. Tom Wolf, along with his Democratic allies in the General Assembly, have spent the last few years pushing for increased state investment in environmental remediation.

In 2018-19, however, the administration did secure $11.9 million to fund lead paint remediation for the Philadelphia public schools. But in 2020, Wolf unsuccessfully pitched a $1.1 billion effort to fight lead and asbestos contamination in the state’s public schools.

This year, Democrats in the state Senate called for using part of the state’s $7 billion in federal stimulus money to fix “crumbling” schoolsWHYY-FM in Philadelphia reported. Democrats said the money was a “once in a lifetime chance,” the Capital-Star previously reported.

“Our physical environment has a huge impact on the way we move, the way we think, and the way we act. In particular, the walls of a school building are there to inspire students to dream beyond their heights,” Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, said at a June news conference touting the plan, according to WHYY-FM.

Democrats in the state House floated a similar plan to spend the stimulus money across a variety of causes. But to the frustration of Democrats, the Legislature’s majority Republicans ended up banking $5 billion of the stimulus money for future needs. An additional $2.5 billion in state surplus tax revenue was deposited into Pennsylvania’s ‘Rainy Day Fund.’

Individual districts are free, however, to spend the money they receive from the $1.6 billion in federal aid specifically earmarked for schools on lead remediation or other environmental problems that compromise student safety.

George W Nebinger Public School (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

To reach its findings, the advocacy group analyzed radon, mold, water quality contaminants, polychlorinated biphenyls in school materials, artificial turf fields, pesticides on school grounds, indoor air quality and lead in drinking water, paint and dust from a random sample of 65 school districts statewide.

Taken together, those districts serve more than 175,000 students.

Of the districts that were tested, researchers found that:

  • Seven in 10 had lead in their drinking water,
  • Two in three reported mold in their school buildings,
  • One in two reported “lead in dust and paint exceedances,”
  • One in three reported high levels of radon, and
  • One in four reported “other” water quality issues

And despite those results, several did not engage in remediation or introduce new health policies to deal with the hazard, the reported concluded.

“On a daily basis, a student’s school building has a greater effect on their body than their pediatrician,” Erika Eitland, a public health expert who reviewed the report, said in a statement. “This deep dive would be valuable in any state as it provides direct evidence for action and outlines a strategy that extends beyond the pandemic.”

(Source: Women for a Healthy Environment)

The report makes a number of recommendations for reform, including the creation of a statewide school environmental health database that would publicly report its findings, as well as the passage of “safe siting” laws that would ensure that schools aren’t within a mile of a pollution-creating facility.

“This report is a call to action. We have an unprecedented opportunity to reinvest in our schools for the long-term—to fund school infrastructure that can positively impact current and future generations of learners across the commonwealth,” the report’s authors conclude. “The challenge ahead of us is to act to ensure a healthy school for every child to grow, learn, and play.”

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

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What Goes On
10 a.m., 461 Main Capitol: Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee.
10 a.m., Montgomeryville, Pa.: House Aging & Youth Committee
10 a.m., G50 Irvis: House State Government Committee subcommittee on pensions

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

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Heavy Rotation
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Wednesday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link
The utterly hapless Baltimore Orioles got drilled, 10-0, by Tampa on Tuesday night. At this point in the season, I’m reminded of the old ‘Peanuts‘ cartoon where Schroeder tells Charlie Brown that the opposing team has caught onto his signals. ‘Oh, they know what I’m going to pitch?’ the eternally put-upon Charlie Brown asks Schroeder. ‘No, it’s worse,’ Schroeder shoots back. ‘They no longer care what you’re going to pitch.’

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.