The Silent Killers in Our Schools: Addressing Asthma and Source Pollution PART 1

boy_asthma_sufferer_375_19afcc7-19afckm On a winter’s day like any other in Straffordville, Ontario, 12 year old boy, Ryan Gibbons made his way to school with his mother Sandra. Upon his arrival, he has expressed to his friends that he wasn’t feeling well. Soon after, his class was let out for recess where Ryan and his friends would convene for outdoor sports. As Ryan made his way outside, he suddently suffered a severe asthma attack. As his friends attempted to carry him to the office, the panic of the attack over took him and he blacked out before he could receive proper medical attention. Ryan Gibbons died on Oct. 9, 2012. (CBC News, 2012).

This tragic event sparked major concerns in the community on asthma management. Questions such as what if the school did not have a policy where they would manage student medications? Would Ryan still be alive if he had his inhaler with him? Hundreds of questions could arise from tragic events such as this one that befell the Gibbons family and thousands of others all across North America.

However, the question must be asked on how had Ryan’s health condition deteriorated so much to where he lost his life during school recess? post atomic workerToday, we live an indoor lifestyle where we are subject to the environments we inhabit. This could be within our homes, schools, office buildings etc. Regardless of our location, the conditions of our health weigh heavily on in-door air quality (IAQ). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines this term “as the air quality within and around buildings and structures. IAQ especially relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.”

Poor indoor air quality levels will lead to adverse health conditions such as sore eyes, burning in the nose and throat, headaches and fatigue. Other pollutants cause or worsen allegies, respiratory illnesses such as asthma, heart disease, cancer and other serious long term conditions.

Asthma specifically, afflicts 18.7 million adults and 7 million children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the numbers are going up.

The CDC says the number of Americans diagnosed with asthma increased by 4.3 million from 2001 to 2009, most steeply among children in low income housing who are more likely to live in areas with greater pollution and environmental toxins. There were nearly 480,000 asthma-related hospitalizations in 2009, 1.2 million outpatient visits, 1.9 million emergency room visits, and 3,388 asthma-associated deaths. The CDC estimated health care costs related to those asthma incidents at $56 billion. Asthma Allergy Foundation of America executive director, Joy Krieger stated, “For too long, people have treated this as a crisis rather than as a chronic condition,” she said. In other words, many crises can be avoided if people can eliminate or reduce the asthma triggers in their homes.”


Fortunately, families that are learning about pollutants are able to personally address IAQ and asthma triggers in their homes

However, what can families do to address high level of pollutants affecting our children which go beyond our own homes and spaces we can immediately control? The EPA provides very comprehensive info on how to identify what is now classified as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS).

“This is identified as a condition in schools and commercial buildings where occupants suffer from acute or chronic health problems where no specific illness is identified. Sadly, a majority of children today are subject to occupying older schools with poor IAQ standards.” The EPA outlines a list of ways to improve indoor air quality, such as identifying radon, second hand smoke and combustion pollutants. I will be expanding on one major culprit on that list which are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

1. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals found in cleaning supplies, paint strippers, varnishes and waxes, paints, lacquers, pesticides, building materials and common air fresheners. VOCs evaporate into the air when these products are used or sometimes even when they are stored. Along with triggering asthma, VOC’s will cause nausea and damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Some of them will cause cancer. High VOC exposure can be the cause of a myriad of deadly but preventable diseases.

Floor Stripping: A Reality No One Knows About

Recoating A prime location for repeated VOC exposure would be the floors of a school. Every year school maintenance departments would undergo the procedure of recoating their hallways, classrooms and hardwood gym floors with hundreds of gallons of protective floor finish. A majority of the conventional products used for these procedures such as the floor finishes, chemical strippers and cleaners have dangerously high VOC content. During the recoating process, heavy amounts of VOC’s from the floor finishes are emitted into the air, are trapped into the ventilation systems which are then transferred from room to room. VOC’s from the floor application process can stay active up to a few years without proper ventilation.

Cleaning and “Burnishing”

janitor closet



For all high foot traffic areas, cleaning and maintenance procedures are required. Custodial staff would dust or wet mop the floors with cleaners that emit high levels of VOC’s such as ammonias and bleaches. (What Are the Dangers of Cleaning With Ammonia?).

The department of health for the state of New York has kindly listed common VOC’s found in common cleaners used in schools, how to identify them and how to go about reducing them in your immediate environment. Information for a Healthy New York

Custodial staff would then use what are called burnishing machines to help polish the floor. The function of these machines is to literally shave off the top, worn down and dirty layer of finish by high speed polishing with aggressive abrasion pads. This results in the transfer and movement of air borne pollutants. These pollutants can track onto shoes or objects that come in contact with the floor. This can also lead to an unconscious ingestion of these pollutants resulting in asthma triggering and a myriad of various health defects.

For more information on toxic airborne particles


At the end of every school year, a majority of schools would undergo a floor stripping process which is the procedure of removing old and worn down floor finish with chemical strippers. Without consistent ventilation, VOCs can occupy schools for days upon weeks which explain why these procedures are performed during the holidays absent of building occupants.

Once this procedure is complete, all that is left is a large volume of sludge that is discarded back into the environment through drains or gutters, attributing to further outdoor environmental pollution, mainly ground water contamination. Based on Calvert Country, MD school reports, one entire school (approximately 50,000 sq. ft), on average would dump approximately 700 pounds of sludge back into the environment every year. These are the standards set for protecting the floors of our schools which ironically leaves the very occupants exposed and unaware to dangerous chemical exposure and poor IAQ levels.

stripper sludge


What are the solutions?  How do I raise awareness on the impact of these silent killers? How do I go about empowering myself and others to raise environmental consciousness in our schools today? These questions and many more will be answered in next month’s feature article. The Silent Killers in Our Schools: Addressing Asthma and Source Pollution (PART 2) “Steps to a Solution”


Written by: Ben Shieh


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