CNN Spotlights Indoor Air Quality Impact on Student Learning

An estimated 14 million American children attend public schools that are in urgent need of  extensive repair or replacement and have unhealthy environmental conditions, including poor air quality, unsafe drinking water and inadequate safety systems. This weekend, CNN will spotlight the dire condition of schools and the health hazards posed by poor indoor air quality.

The segment, which will air on Saturday and Sunday, follows CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta as he visits schools in Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut to examine the impact of indoor air quality on students and school employees. During his travels, Dr. Gupta spoke to NEA members and leaders, including National Education Association Vice President Lily Eskelsen, who called the poor condition of schools a “national crisis” and emphasized how the ability of many students to learn depends on a safe and healthy school environment.

NEA and its members are urging Congress to pass President Obama’s Fix America’s Schools Today Act, which would provide $25 billion for modernizing and repairing public schools, with half of the funds funneled to schools that need it most.

Southern Middle in Reading, Pennsylvania is one of those schools. Now more than 90 years old, Southern Middle has leaky roofs throughout the building, causing tiles to fall out of the drop ceilings. Wires are exposed, paint is bubbled and chipped, and pieces of plaster fall from the ceiling and walls. Toxins from the paint and plaster particulates as well as mold spores from the water damage circulate through an ancient HVAC system and into the air.

“At one point I had a waterfall cascading into a light fixture in the ceiling,” Christopher Meyer says. “Kids were sitting in puddles in metal chairs as water hit exposed wires. They were like individual lightening rods. You can’t get any more dangerous than that.”

Meyer, a seventh grade social studies teacher and NEA member, showed the abysmal state of his classroom to Gupta, Eskelsen, and NEA Health Information Network Director Jerry Newberry during American Education Week in November.

“Poor indoor environmental quality contributes to serious health problems for students and staff, including asthma, allergic reactions, fatigue, headaches and respiratory tract infections,” says Newberry. “This causes high rates of absenteeism, and dramatically decreases the ability to concentrate and learn when students actually do make it class.”

“It matters that all kids go to school that is healthy, that’s good for them,” Eskelsen told Gupta. “We need to talk about curriculum, books, technology, all of those things – yes. But if you put them in a building where kids are getting asthma, what have you done?”

CNN’s report on indoor air quality in schools airs on Saturday, January 14 at 8 p.m., 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. ET.  The program will re-air again at the same times on Sunday, January 15.

Take Action: Tell Congress to support the Fix America’s Schools Today (FAST) Act.

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  • Patrick Nicholson

    Great job informing Dr. Gupta and the public about the problems associated with poor indoor air quality in our nation’s schools! I especially liked how you explained that students, particularly those with health issues like asthma, are missing out on their education due to absences caused by poor IAQ in schools.  The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that fully half of our public schools nationwide have IAQ problems.  I’m a school custodian whose district is in the process of cutting our custodial staff again to help balance the budget.  It’s not just the deteriorating buildings that are causing IAQ issues; it’s also due largely to the loss of custodians and maintenance workers that properly maintain these schools.
    Patrick Nicholson

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  • Linda Delp

    Sadly I and many have been trying to tell our leaders this for years. I know several teachers that became ill and had difficulty getting workman’s comp, etc. Since I became ill from water damage I have read about so many schools, etc. that is would be difficult to count them all. Thanks for finally doing a story on this issue. Linda

  • Chris F

    It is great to see this as a topic that comes to life. The health quality of many of our nation’s schools is an under-reported topic throughout the country. As the country’s schools grow older and older, and money goes to technological and curriculum improvements, capital improvements often go on the table. The result is the development of buildings that are ill equipped for many of the country’s staff and students.

    Mold, old asbestos, leaks, and “strange cracks and crevices” are just a handful of the many problems that are surfacing. Who knows what other health problems are waiting to be found due to unclean ducts and ancient heating systems.

    Kudos for tackling this subject and bringing it into the open.

  • Janet D’Ambra

    I have worked in public school for 24 years. The buildings are old and breaking down. I suffer from severe asthma. I was transferred into a different room in the oldest part of a school building. I quickly became violently ill, diagnosed with ABPA- Allergic Bronchopulmonary Aspergillosis, Bacterial Pneumonia,and Fungal Pneumonia. I have been on medical leave for 10 months, at this point unpaid, and take 21 prescriptions per day. I have permanent lung damage, and will need a lung transplant at some point. From the high dose and long-term use of prednisone, my bones are the equivalent of a 92 year old woman, and my lungs that of an 85 year old woman. I am trying to get disability, but nothing has come through yet. If the dilapidated building has bothered me so much, it surely has impacted the lives of other teachers, staff, and students. What can be done????????? Thank you– Janet

  • There is no doubt that some schools have indoor air quality (iaq) problems or that poor iaq affects performance.

    I question whether the federal government should be involved in the financing of our school buildings. And, once repaired, who will finance the operation/maintenance of the buildings to keep them from deteriorating right back into disrepair (and iaq problems)?

    Let’s step back, identify the problem, develop options, select an option–then move forward–before throwing money at a symptom.

  • Thank you so much for spotlighting how our deteriorating schools do affect the quality of learning of our students. In addition, those deteriorated school buildings are located in schools that have underachieving students, students at risk, students who don’t want to come to school and then we wonder why?! Every school building should be a sanctuary of learning, every student should be emotionally and physical safe in the physical environment of his/her building a beautiful building contributes to the quality learning
    just as each teacher does

  • Carl A. Munford

    Thank You CNN for finally addressing a issue that has been a problem for years. During a school renovation project at Columbus Public Schools in Columbus Nebraska in the school years of 2004-2005. The indoor air pollution was so bad, many kids and teachers became ill. My daughter, Jennifer, was among the worst of them. June 10th, 2010, Jennifer died from Seizures. In my professional opinion, the bad air in the school killed her. Perhaps this story will put a bright enough spotlight on the School Boards, that they will take steps to safe guard our children.

  • Kathleen Walsh

    Our children are the future of our country. How can we send them to schools that are falling apart, filled with mold and leaking water? We are allowing them and the teachers who are trying to educate them to be made ill and forced to leave the schools they attend. Is this the America we have become??

  • Lin

    It’s about time national attention is brought to the issue of poor air quality in our public schools. So many of the teachers in my elementary building were suffering from severe, acute respiratory issues and reoccurring pneumonia, that we went to the union to ask for an OSHA inspection. We were told to drop it or we wouldn’t get a raise for the next 3 years. Lin

  • Ginny Mott

    There is so much more that could be said about the critical problem of school environmental quality and the impact it’s having on the health of children and staff. In the course of preparing this report, CNN learned about things we already know about how to address the problems. Please, continue to cover school environments and include information about repairs, appropriate building assessments vs. unnecessary testing, good maintenance practices, and what staff and parents can do to help maintain a healthy school environment. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Our children need someone to do this. Our children need schools that don’t make them sick.

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