The health of Pennsylvania students could get lost in a “bureaucratic shuffle” if state officials go ahead with plans to drop a set of rules governing environmental safety in schools, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official said last week.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection intends to repeal provisions that require the agency to monitor heating and ventilation, building safety, rodent control, and trash collection in public schools.
Chris Novak, a spokeswoman for the department, said the proposed repeal is part of an effort by Republican Gov. Tom Ridge’s administration to eliminate redundant and unnecessary regulations.
The guidelines that are targeted for cutting, all of which were written 25 years ago, fall under the jurisdiction of other state agencies, such as the health department, Ms. Novak said.
The environmental department hopes to cut the rules within six months, pending approval from an internal department panel and state legislators.
But Peter Kostmayer, a former regional director for the EPA and a former Democratic U.S. representative from Pennsylvania, said the repeal would be a “major retreat in the protection of the health of schoolchildren.”
Mr. Kostmayer, who now heads Zero Population Growth, a Washington advocacy group, said he plans to bring together environmental groups, along with regional and state legislators, to fight the agency’s proposal.
“Parents are entitled to the certainty that their children’s health is being looked after when they leave them for the day,” Mr. Kostmayer said in an interview. “Pennsylvania has made that less clear and increased the likelihood that children will get sick.”
Six of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have health departments that regularly inspect schools for such problems as “sick-building syndrome,” in which improperly ventilated buildings can expose children to mold-related or air-borne diseases.
School districts in the remaining counties, especially those in rural areas, depend on state programs to safeguard their learning environments.
According to Ms. Novak, Gov. Ridge isn’t discounting the importance of safe schools, he’s just redirecting who monitors them.
“Governor Ridge recognizes that school safety is an issue, it’s just not an environmental issue,” the spokeswoman said. “It has more to do with the health and safety departments.”
Bruce Reimer, a spokesman for the state health department, said that his department will make itself available if an official feels there is an environmental or rodent problem in a school, but that no state agency has performed regular environmental inspections in schools in recent years.
The importance of routine environmental inspections in schools should not be underestimated, according to one county health official.
“Pennsylvania is the birthplace of Legionnaires’ disease, and it’s had problems with radon in the not-so-distant past,” said David Jackson, the environmental-health director for the Chester County, Pa., health department. “The longer you go without inspection, the greater the risk to students.”
The students who face the greatest risk are those in rural counties lacking health departments, Mr. Kostmayer said, adding that district officials in these areas might lack the expertise required to identify potential environmental hazards.
“Unless you’ve had experience with this, it’s pretty tough to spot,” Mr. Kostmayer said. “There have been several sick buildings in Bucks County, and it requires pre-emptive intervention.”