Book Review: Organizing against the Toxins Lurking in Our Schools

The Toxic Schoolhouse, edited by Madeleine Kangsen Scammell and Charles Levenstein. Baywood Publishing, 2014.

As news about the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, has reverberated across the country, many cities and schools have been discovering that their own problems with lead are just as bad, if not worse.

It’s prompting concerns about all kinds of toxic exposures in and around schools, especially for the 53 million public-school children who are most vulnerable—but also for about 6 million school workers, part of the second-largest “industry” in the U.S.

You might expect that the same politicians who push the rhetoric of “No Child Left Behind” or “Every Student Succeeds” would be keen to address the dangers of brain damage for children poisoned by lead in schools.

But it’s not so. The people who shape our school policies are neglecting the toxic exposures and other health concerns that affect children and workers in schools—including asthma caused by toxins to which children of color and the poor are disproportionately exposed.

The Toxic Schoolhouse, published in 2014, provides case studies that will help readers understand the scope of the hazards and organize to remedy them. The book is really a collection of articles, so each chapter and section can be read on its own.

Hazards Abound

The introduction and first section do an excellent job in laying out the problems. Many of the case studies are drawn from Massachusetts, where the editors are based.

Here are some of the hazards that threaten educational achievement and the health of children and workers:

  • lead, asbestos, and PCBs from older building materials and blown fluorescent lighting ballasts
  • indoor air quality and diesel exhaust from idling school buses
  • pesticides and toxic cleaning products
  • mold from buildings in disrepair
  • radon
  • siting schools on toxic brownfields

The book highlights environmental-justice concerns about who is most affected, not only by decrepit buildings and brownfields sites, but also by the double impact of exposure to toxins at home.

It documents how policymakers and administrators substitute negligence, deception, and denial for timely remedies—and how they employ tricks to manage our perception. For instance, to get results that look less alarming, they may flush out the pipes before testing the water, or test with very low flow, which doesn’t loosen the lead particles in pipes or joints. But these methods don’t match how people really use sinks and water fountains.

The first chapter, “Who’s in Charge of Children’s Environmental Health at Schools?” identifies a central challenge. Education policy and funding are fragmented among many different federal, state, and local authorities.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for instance, covers school workers in only about half the states—and it doesn’t cover children at all. In fact, children and school workers fall through the cracks of various regulatory agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And there is no system for collecting health data from toxic exposures at schools, despite the fact the children spend 1,300 hours a year there. Often parents are the ones who raise the alarm about hazards, but they run into trouble getting prompt remedies.

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However, in light of the scope and severity of the problems, the solutions in sections two and three of the book seem lacking.

It’s not that they aren’t good steps, but they aren’t enough. For example, some chapters in the book describe organizing or policymaking for green and healthy cleaning products. These campaigns are important—both for addressing triggers for asthma, and for coalition-building among labor, environmental health, and community groups.

But ultimately, solutions will require remodeling or re-building schools, and will carry a much heftier price tag. The book neglects the underlying problem with how education, public services, and infrastructure are funded—or aren’t.

A New Deal-style federal public works program to fix school buildings and municipal water infrastructure would be a good solution, with the added bonus of creating full employment. Getting the federal financing for it, though, seems out of reach in our current political climate.

Without federal help, it will be up to us to push school districts, states, and municipalities to find progressive ways to raise revenue—which is to say, by taxing the rich and corporations. We’ll have to be discerning to avoid the kinds of Wall Street scams that have shackled not only Puerto Rico but also numerous school districts, with enormous debts.

One possible long-term solution is an idea that’s gaining momentum in many municipalities and states: public banks. North Dakota already has one. Since they serve the public interest rather than the short-term profits of their shareholders, public banks can offer low- or no-interest loans to schools and other government enterprises, as well as to small businesses.

A Bit Academic

Finally, although the publisher intends the book for a wide audience—“teachers, parents, administrators, teachers union activists, health and safety advocates, environmentalists, public health practitioners and activists, students in environmental and occupational health (in the United States and elsewhere)”—sections two and three seem too wonky and academic for most readers.

While it will be important for school board members, policymakers, and administrators to read books like this, such figures lack the will and courage to solve these dire and widespread problems.

It’s not that anyone is trying to poison our children or workers. The problem is a lack of political will. It’s become politically suicidal to point out huge problems when the solutions require raising revenue. Administrators and policymakers would rather pretend the problems don’t exist.

Real change will take grassroots organizing. We need books that speak to the only people capable of doing it: parents, school workers, and students themselves.

Hyung Nam teaches social studies at Wilson High School and is a building rep for the Portland Association of Teachers. He is also a member of the Socially Responsible Investment Committee for the City of Portland and the board of Health Care for All Oregon.