"Patti Wood leads the way," said both NYS Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli and the Adelphi University representative opening the Children At Risk symposium at the Adelphi University Center. They were referring to Patti Wood's work as executive director of Grassroots Environmental Education, located in Port Washington but with far-reaching effect. Grassroots' goal is to eliminate children's exposure to the chemicals in pesticides, cleaning products and other materials and liquids found in school buildings and grounds. Also, Grassroots lobbied for the current state law forbidding the idling of school buses, which helps reduce the diesel fumes children inhale. Grassroots also tries to educate people on how to eliminate harmful chemicals in their homes and on their grounds.
The panel of speakers included Patti Wood, Dr. Ted Schettler, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Jay Feldman (co-founder of Beyond Pesticides), Dr. Emilia Patricia Zarco and moderator Brian Lehrer, host of NPR radio show, All Things Considered. Dr. Trasande, assistant director for the Mount Sinai Center for Children's Health, spoke on children's unique vulnerability to chemicals. He explained that children breath faster and more air than adults because they are growing and their organs are developing. They also drink more water and eat more food than adults. Because of their smaller size the chemicals affect them more. Health problems are caused by lead, mold, pesticides and cleaning products with VOC content. Carpeting and pressed wood have human carcinogens such as formaldehyde.
Dr. Ted Schettler, the science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said people have to prioritize their interventions: first, in the home, then schools and then push for legislation. He wrote a book, In Harm's Way: The Toxic Threats to Child Development, where he examines the impacts of environmental contaminants on children's neurological development.
Both he and Patti Wood believe school districts don't have to wait for legislation but can act on their own to cut out pesticides and chemical cleaners. Several school districts, including Port Washington, have already switched to organic turf management and "green" cleaners. Several of these school buildings and management superintendents who follow the Grassroots guidelines were present. Patti Wood pointed out Baldwin's superintendent but also present were the superintendents from Great Neck and Seaford.
One questioner from the audience asked for a list of safe products such as one that could eliminate ants. It was suggested that he speak to successful school districts to see what they used. Helpful websites are: www.healthyschools.org, www.beyondpesticides.com, www.grassrootsinfo.org and www.checnet.org.
As of September 1, New York State law compels school districts to use "green seal" cleaning products. However, according to Tom DiNapoli, there are objections to some of these products because they could be safer. There is a need for a more stringent list of products that are really safe to use in schools.
Health teachers and school nurses need to be aware of how the health of students is being affected in their schools. Adelphi's School of Education with a masters program in health education was represented by several of its students in the audience as well as one of the panelists, Dr. Zarco, a teacher. Dr. Zarco said having health teachers educated about the chemical effects on children could help school districts to make their schools safer. All schools should have an assessment tool to judge the health of their school environment, as well as a study of signs and symptoms of health problems caused by the school environment.
Grassroots is working with the state government to design a "cool" interactive site to be part of the required health education curriculum that is in place in secondary schools. The website would provide for teenagers health information on food, care products, scented candles and plastics.
Meanwhile the panelists agree that long-term studies now being conducted will help decide the effects of chemical exposure. But before anything definitive is learned, products without chemicals should be used. If sanitizing is necessary in certain areas such as bathrooms, then chemicals are needed but not for general cleaning in classrooms.