Tracking Down School Toxins Your school might expose students to harmful neurotoxins and ototoxicants. But you can help reduce exposures. School Matters
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School Matters  |   November 01, 2018
Tracking Down School Toxins
Author Notes
  • Laura Anderko, PhD, RN, is the Robert and Kathleen Scanlon Endowed Chair in Values-Based Health Care at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies. She is also a professor and director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment. kidsandenvironment.georgetown.edu
    Laura Anderko, PhD, RN, is the Robert and Kathleen Scanlon Endowed Chair in Values-Based Health Care at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies. She is also a professor and director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment. kidsandenvironment.georgetown.edu×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / School Matters
School Matters   |   November 01, 2018
Tracking Down School Toxins
The ASHA Leader, November 2018, Vol. 23, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.23112018.32
The ASHA Leader, November 2018, Vol. 23, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.23112018.32
Children spend an average of 6.8 hours each day in school, totaling more than 1,000 hours each year. Those numbers get higher if they participate in before- or afterschool programs. Given this amount of time, students can experience negative effects on their health and academic performance if their schools contain contaminates.
Children’s nervous systems continue to develop through age 18, making them more susceptible than adults to neurotoxins, yet 50 percent of schools report at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Common neurotoxins found in schools—and many other environments—include lead, mercury and pesticides. These substances are also ototoxicants—chemicals that can cause hearing loss when inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. These toxins can reach the inner ear through the bloodstream and cause injury to parts of the ear and connected neural pathways essential to hearing and balance.
The good news is that hazardous environmental exposures are often preventable. School-based audiologists, speech-language pathologists and other school personnel can help prevent student exposures to these toxins by being aware of any possible problems in their school and advocating for removal.

Common neurotoxins found in schools—and many other environments—include lead, mercury and pesticides.

Toxins in our schools
Most research on ototoxicity and environmental exposure focuses on adults in occupational settings, even though we know schools often contain these hazards, and children are more sensitive to their potential harm. Here’s what these toxins can do to children and where they’re commonly found.
Lead
In addition to hearing loss, adverse health effects from lead exposure include reduced cognitive ability and attention span, learning disabilities, poor classroom performance, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and impaired growth. No safe blood lead level exists for children.
Schools built before 1978 likely used leaded paint on walls, woodwork and/or windowsills. Lead in drinking water can also significantly contribute to overall exposure. Lead—a heavy metal often leaching into drinking water from plumbing—has been found in schools’ drinking water across the U.S.
No federal law requires drinking water testing in schools, except for the rare schools with their own water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests schools implement programs to reduce lead in drinking water as part of a school’s overall plan for reducing environmental threats. School administrators and staff can use the EPA’s guidance to implement lead testing and create a lead-reduction plan.
Reduction plan options include free or inexpensive temporary solutions, such as shutting off problem water outlets or flushing the system daily before use. More permanent solutions involve replacing fixtures and pipes, installing filtration systems effective for lead, or providing bottled water for the building.
Mercury
Exposure to mercury, another toxic metal, might result in problems with hearing and vision.
Our schools contain many sources of mercury, which comes in liquid and gas forms. Some of the most common sources include glass thermometers, compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs, science equipment, thermostats, and mercury used in chemistry classes. Most children get mercury poisoning by breathing in vapors—like when a CFL bulb breaks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers information to reduce exposures in schools.
Pesticides
Pesticides are neurotoxins that can precipitate a wide range of health issues including hearing loss, memory loss, learning disabilities, reduction in immune response, and cancer.
Frequently used in schools to kill insects and rodents both indoors and out, pesticides reach children through inhalation, ingestion or dermal absorption. Given pesticides’ frequent presence on playgrounds and game fields, children active in outdoor sports are particularly vulnerable. Students can inhale the numerous toxins in pesticides long after they’re sprayed. Pesticides can also drift or get tracked indoors, remaining in carpets for up to a year.
To reduce pesticide exposures and related health effects, the EPA recommends schools implement an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. Key components of an IPM program include alternative means of eliminating pests—for example, reducing sources of water, food, access and shelter. The guidelines strongly advise using the least amount of toxic pesticides and only as a last resort.
Steps you can take
You might notice a child with a sudden-onset hearing or speech disorder that seemingly presents with no prior developmental delays or issues. This can indicate effects of neurotoxins.
Students need—and deserve—safe and healthy school environments. If you suspect the presence of neurotoxins in your school, you can take several actions toward creating a safe environment. Start with the EPA’s many resources to develop comprehensive, prevention-focused environmental health programs in schools.
The following approaches can also help protect students—and you and your colleagues—from exposures that could affect hearing, behavior, speech or language:
  • Assess environmental health risks in and around schools for possible exposures to lead, mercury and/or pesticides, then make recommendations based on those assessments.

  • Contribute to your school’s action plans for reduction of ototoxicants.

  • Communicate with other school staff—nurses, classroom teachers, administrators, psychologists, counselors—and families to develop a team approach supporting a healthy school environment.

  • Participate on committees and advisory boards in developing ototoxicant-reducing school policies and plans.

  • Offer education and training to school personnel and families on long-term health effects of ototoxicants and prevention strategies at school and at home.

Educational audiologists and school-based SLPs are key players in any effort to reduce health risks in the school environment.
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November 2018
Volume 23, Issue 11