Law & Courts

EPA Charged With Establishing School Building, Health Guidelines

By Katie Ash — January 16, 2008 5 min read

Tucked quietly into the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 is a section that calls for establishing voluntary environmental-health and -safety guidelines for states to consult when locating and constructing schools, and authorizes grants for states to develop programs around those standards.

The measure, which President Bush signed into law last month, marks the first time that a federal agency will provide such guidance.

School board representatives offered differing views of the legislation, which directs the Environmental Protection Agency to write the guidelines.

The legislation takes the right approach, said Marc Egan, the director of federal affairs for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “The key phrase in that bill was that these are voluntary guidelines,” he said. “We definitely don’t want to see Congress issuing mandates for these issues.”

“Any kind of research or sharing of best practices is something that districts and states can benefit from,” Mr. Egan added.

Yet some school boards may feel that even voluntary guidelines impinge on local authority, said Erika K. Hoffman, the principal legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association.

“Every state is different, and it’s not appropriate … to make a blanket statement,” she said. “The reality is that these are local funds [being spent on school construction]. They’re state funds, which are locally derived, … and [federal guidelines are] not appropriate.”

Although the provision calls only for voluntary guidelines, Ms. Hoffman expressed concern that they could become regulations in the future.

Environmental advocates welcomed the legislation.

“Schools have been treated in some ways as local,” said Claire L. Barnett, the executive director of the Albany, N.Y.-based Healthy Schools Network, a children’s environmental-health advocacy group. “But when you have 120,000 school buildings with approximately 54 million children, and those buildings are falling apart, it’s hardly a local issue anymore.”

The EPA will consult with the secretary of education, the secretary of health and human services, and other relevant federal agencies in writing the guidelines.

‘Beyond the Toxic Issue’

Under the energy act’s “Healthy High-Performance Schools” section, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., federal guidance for the siting of school facilities must be written within 18 months. It must take into consideration, the law says, the unique vulnerability of children to hazardous substances or pollution exposure, modes of transportation available to students and staff, the efficient use of energy, and the potential use of schools as emergency shelters.

“This bill really broadens the concept of siting, beyond the toxic issue,” Ms. Barnett said, referring to long-standing concerns about placement of schools on or near sites contaminated with toxins. It asks states to look at schools as the center of a community, she said, as well as taking into consideration the issue of transportation and suburban sprawl.

“The guidelines may help promote more schools within walking and biking distance,” she said.

The Healthy High-Performance Schools provisions were introduced by Sen. Lautenberg to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works as part of the High Performance Green Buildings Act, and later adopted by the House and Senate as part of the overall energy bill. The provisions built on language from the No Child Left Behind Act that defined healthy, high-performance schools.

The Federal guidelines on school health and environmental programs, which will be created under a separate provision from the one on school siting, must be established by the EPA within two years. The guidelines discuss environmental problems such as contaminants, hazardous substances, and pollutant emissions; lighting; ventilation; heating and cooling technologies; moisture control and mold; and acoustics.

Only five states have set guidelines on those matters, according to the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, or CHEJ, an advocacy organization based in Falls Church, Va.

States and the federal government have been slow to establish environmental-health and -safety standards for schools, partly because of a lack of scientific data about the subject, said Lois M. Gibbs, the executive director of the center. Most research used to establish those standards is based on the average adult male, she said.

“You can’t apply the same rules as an adult human body to a growing, maturing, developing child,” she said. “Children are biologically different than adults.”

Poor Communities’ Needs

The EPA has also been asked to consider the special vulnerability of poor and minority communities to toxic exposure.

Low-income communities are particularly at risk for unsafe school facilities because of a lack of awareness surrounding the issue, and because “the parents want the school so bad that they look the other way,” said Bill Wolfe, the field director for the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

See Also

For more stories on this topic see Safety and Health.

“They’re afraid to make waves; otherwise [the school] may not be built at all,” said Mr. Wolfe, who also spent 13 years as a policy analyst and planner for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The federal law also authorizes $10 million over five years for a grant program to help states build environmental-health programs for schools.

States will be able to use the money to implement the EPA’s already-established IAQ Tools for Schools program, which aims to improve indoor-air quality, and the Healthy School Environments Assessment Tools program, a software package that helps districts evaluate their facilities.

The money may also go toward developing and implementing states’ own school-environmental-health programs, based on the federal guidelines that will be established.

It’s too early to comment on the specifics of those guidelines, said Shakeba Carter-Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the EPA.

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