School Climate & Safety

Health Update

May 26, 1999 3 min read

Report Raises Concerns About Portable Classrooms

More than 2 million California children who attend classes in so-called portables may be exposed to airborne cancer-causing toxins, a report says.

The report by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental-research organization with offices in San Francisco and Washington, says that long-term exposure to airborne chemicals of the concentrations measured in portable or modular classrooms in California may increase a child’s lifetime risk of cancer by two or three times the level considered acceptable under federal law.

Short-term exposure to the chemicals or toxin molds commonly found in such buildings can cause nausea, headaches, diarrhea and other health problems.

Of greatest concern are organic compounds such as formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene, which are emitted from particle board, plywood, fiberglass, carpet, glues, and other materials used to build portables, the report says.

Though the chemicals found in portables are similar to those in conventional buildings, the combination of tighter construction and fewer windows can lead to a greater buildup of toxins, according to the study. “Better ventilation will improve the air quality in portable classrooms, but they still emit airborne toxin chemicals that can harm students’ and teachers’ health,” Bill Walker, the California director of the EWG, said in a prepared statement.

About 86,500 portable classrooms are in use across California; a fast-growing school population and a class-size-reduction program are fueling their popularity.

“Reading, Writing, and Risk: Air Pollution Inside California’s Portable Classrooms” is available online at (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader), or by calling (202) 667-6982 or (415) 561-6698.

Sex Education Poll: A new survey indicates that a majority of Americans support sex education that includes information about both contraception and abstinence.

The poll was commissioned by two groups that support comprehensive education on sexuality, Advocates for Youth and the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States.

The vast majority of those polled, 91 percent, said 11th and 12th graders should be taught about birth control, and 95 percent said those students should also learn about abstinence.

“This poll affirms that parents want schools as their partners in the sexuality education of their children,” Debra W. Haffner, the president of SIECUS, based in New York City, said in a prepared statement.

“Parents want their children to be taught about abstinence but only in conjunction with a wide range of sexuality education issues,” she said.

James Wagoner, the president of the Washington-based Advocates for Youth, said: “Parents don’t see any opposition between sexuality education that includes information about contraception and abstinence. For them, it is not an either-or equation. They want both.”

The telephone survey of 1,050 adults nationwide was conducted in February and March. The poll has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Stress, by Gender: While boys and girls experience similar levels of stress, a report concludes, different factors appear to cause stress in each.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied 88 boys and girls ranging in age from 8 to 18. All of the students had been referred to outpatient clinics for various behavioral or emotional problems.

The researchers found that while girls did not experience more stress overall, they did report higher levels of interpersonal stress, such as that generated by relationships with family members or peers.

Boys, however, were found to experience higher levels of noninterpersonal stress, such as that associated with academic performance or as a result of trouble with law-enforcement officers. The researchers also found that stress was associated with depressive symptoms in girls but not in boys.

The study appears this month in the journal Child Development.

--Adrienne D. Coles

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 1999 edition of Education Week as Health Update


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