Environmental hazards reduced in schools

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(Host) Three years ago, the Vermont Legislature passed the School Environmental Health Act. Last year the Health Department was criticized for failing to follow up on the legislation by implementing an effective program to help schools minimize the dangers posed by environmental hazards like chemicals, dust and mold. Now critics say the program is working and the Health Department says more schools are taking steps to cut down on environmental problems.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) The issue of healthy schools first grew out of a concern over air quality. A 1996 survey found that over a quarter of the state’s schools had poor indoor air. Ben Davis is with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

(Davis) “Since then, we’ve come to understand that a lot of the common cleaning materials we use in schools contain hazardous materials. Schools are using pesticides that aren’t suitable for use indoors, also issues concerning mold have grown. A lot of dust gets tracked into schools.”

(Zind) When the Legislature passed the School Environmental Health Act, the idea was that schools would sign up for a program to help them minimize the dangerous chemicals and pollutants that can contribute to illness and missed days of school.

Last year, VPIRG admonished the health department for a program it said was so complicated that only twelve of over three hundred schools had signed up. Davis says since then the department has made some changes.

(Davis) “They have gone around a corner and actually are fairly committed to having a program that works, that’s not cumbersome and that schools are going to be able to embrace.”

(Zind) Sheri Lynn has been heading the health departments program since last March. The program is called Envision. Lynn says it was difficult to come up with a model that worked for the schools, but she says interest in the program is growing. Fifty schools have now signed up and she hopes another 100 will join this winter.

(Lynn) “We’re at a stage now where more people have heard about Envision and the motivation and enthusiasm is there so it’s really moving things forward.”

(Zind) Lynn says early next year, the department will issue the first Environmental Health Certificates to schools that have met the program’s criteria. The goal is to have half of Vermont’s schools certified by January 2005. Ben Davis of VPIRG says now that the program is working, he thinks the goal can be met. The Health Department is holding workshops in later this month and in November to help schools assess environmental hazards and find ways to reduce them.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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