The Healthy and High Performing School

Bill Walsh | October 15, 2004 | Policies

The Healthy Schools Network, Inc. is a national not-for-profit organization centered on children's environmental health, and dedicated to assuring every child and school employee an environmentally safe and healthy school. The Healthy Building News asked its leaders to discuss the impact of an important new report on how school buildings affect student health and achievement. The following is guest-written by Stephen Boese and Claire Barnett [1]

In the Spring of 2004, Healthy Schools Network, Inc. (HSN) [2] released The Healthy and High Performance School report that for the first time tied together the peer-reviewed international sciences documenting the connection between school indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and student health and achievement.[3] The resulting work and its policy translation for legislators strengthens the call for healthy buildings and moves the call into the school facility sector -- the largest volume of all public construction.

While on the road doing Healthy High Performance School workshops last spring, it was surprising how little awareness the local architectural and engineering professionals had of children's environmental health issues, and how eager they were to hear more. School buildings should be built for their primary occupants -- kids, who breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults and spend hours on the floor, not built to meet an abstract notion of what adults like to see.

The paper finds that schools are, on average, in very poor physical condition, even though schools that are poorly designed and/or poorly maintained increase children's and all building occupant exposure to environmental health threats. Threats include poor indoor air pollution, growing mold, diesel fumes, lead, mercury, pesticides, and a variety of toxic substances, not to mention the safety hazards associated with poor engineering or shoddy construction controls. Environmental or occupational health standards do not consider this unique vulnerability of children. Children are required by law to attend school even if the school makes them sick and/or detracts for learning.

HSN has successfully advocated for New York State and major federal advances towards improving indoor environmental quality at school, and now chairs a Schools Work Group at US EPA. Like other states, New York State is engaged in a legal battle concerning state government's responsibility to equitably fund a "sound basic education" for all students. The HSN science paper shows the Court and the Legislature that school environments have a substantial impact on student health and learning. Therefore it is essential that schools the state and schools be held accountable to provide a well designed and well maintained Healthy and High Performance learning environment as part of any resolution to this educational funding and equity debate.

HHPS standards effectively and efficiently provide a well-designed learning environment for children that promote student health, attendance and achievement and save money for localities. Careful materials selection can have an important long-term and short-term impact on IEQ, not only be reducing direct off-gassing emissions but also by reducing the need for toxic cleaning and maintenance products. Over the long term, careful material selection will also help us avoid the systemic problems that plague our schools today. This trend is also helping to build markets for healthier building materials and fixtures, free of PCB's, mercury, lead, formaldehyde and other pollutants. The Healthy Building Network has reported for example, that High Performance Schools are an important factor behind skyrocketing sales of linoleum as an alternative to vinyl flooring.[4]


[1] Claire Barnett is the Executive Director of the Healthy Schools Network, Inc.; Stephen Boese is HSN's State Director for New York.


[3] "Science-Based Recommendations to Prevent of Reduce Potential Exposures to Biological, Chemical and Physical Agents in Schools," Derek G. Shendell, D.Env, MPH; Claire Barnett, MBA and Stephen Boese, MSW, available from Healthy Schools Network and at A manuscript concisely summarizing the completed science report and its 300+ references has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Journal of School Health and is "in press" for December 2004. This paper will also be presented at the APHA 2004 Annual Meeting, on November 9, 2004 in Washington, DC.

[4] Forbo Flooring, which controls more than 80 percent of the US linoleum market, reports that driven by orders from schools and health care facilities, linoleum sales growth has outpaced growth in the overall floor covering market by substantially more than double during the last five years. (