Decades after Congress’ orders, toxics still contaminate millions of schools

More than 40 years ago, Congress banned harmful polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from schools. And it’s been 37 years since Congress directed schools to address asbestos. But today, millions of schools continue to be plagued by these and other toxic chemicals.

Specific concerns:

Children are especially susceptible to harm from chemical exposure. Yet many U.S. schools have not been upgraded to eliminate PCBs, asbestos, lead and other threats. Exposure to toxics has a significant, negative impact on educational outcomes, a Brookings study shows.

Many schools, especially those in low-income communities, facing tough budget choices, lack the resources to address the threats posed by toxics.

For example, an investigation in 2015 by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee found that schools across the U.S. are taking a haphazard approach to tracking and cleaning up asbestos.

And only a handful of states require schools to test at the tap for lead, and often just once. Last year, California enacted a health-protective program to test drinking water for lead in licensed child care facilities and require significant reductions in lead detected.

Cash-strapped schools have been slow to address light ballasts containing PCB, which was banned from manufacturing in 1976 for its toxic effects. These light ballasts have exceeded their life span and can emit PCBs that can harm children.

And most schools don’t limit the amount of chemicals like pesticides that can be sprayed in or around buildings, putting students at risk.

Nearly 40 states have some type of regulation addressing the use of pesticides, like fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, on school grounds. Some states, including Connecticut, Maine and New York, have taken steps to ban dangerous pesticides, improve indoor air and require green cleaning products, but most have not.

Congress misses chance to fund schools

Students and teachers are paying the price, and students of color are disproportionately affected. It is hard to measure how much toxics like PCBs, lead and asbestos threaten students, because no state, nor the federal government, systematically tracks children’s risks and exposures in American schools.

Congress has so far failed to give schools the resources they need. Between 2009 and 2019, Congress provided only 1 percent of the cost of upgrading our schools.

The $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure law recently signed by President Joe Biden should help. It provides funds to make schools more energy efficient, allocates $5 billion to buy zero emission school buses, and contains billions to clean up brownfields and Superfund sites, many of which are near schools. The law also funds schools’ efforts to test and reduce lead in drinking water.

The separate Build Back Better infrastructure bill passed by the House of Representatives in November includes other important new investments for schools, including free school meals for millions of students and $250 million to support healthier food offerings. 

But the bill, which now faces an uncertain future in the Senate, provides only $50 million for the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor and reduce air pollution in schools in low-income communities.

Replacing substandard HVAC systems and ensuring healthy air quality would cost an estimated $72 billion. Some schools may be able to tap into $9 billion for lead remediation projects to replace drinking water foundations, but specifics are uncertain.

Biden proposed investing $100 billion in school construction in the Build Back Better infrastructure bill in March. Schools face an $85 billion gap in the annual spending needed to upgrade their facilities, and that investment would have made a big difference. But the House cut it entirely in November.

It’s not too late for the Senate to act. Other bills – including the Get Toxics Substances Out of Schools Act – await congressional action.

Biden’s EPA can act now to protect schoolchildren

The Biden administration can take other steps to protect students from toxic chemicals in schools. The EPA can revive a rule – blocked by the Trump EPA – to require schools to finally remove PCBs from light ballasts. The EPA could also take steps to ban pesticides linked to serious health harms.

And Biden could request more funding for schools to address toxics and indoor air in his upcoming fiscal year 2023 budget request. The budget should also prioritize replacing light ballasts, windows with PCB-containing caulk, and HVAC systems in schools, so children who are learning don’t have to worry about toxic exposures.  

Special thanks to Claire Barnett, executive director at Healthy Schools Network, a national leader on children’s environmental health at school. For information on states that are taking action to improve school environments, see Towards Healthy Schools: Reducing Risks to Children.

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