School hazards and how board members can affect change

By Morgan Statt

When we send our children to school, we expect them to be in a safe and healthy environment. In just the past decade alone, the standards of excellence have continued to raised for primary and secondary schools from both safety and educational standpoints.

Despite our best efforts, however, hazards can still arise within school walls that can pose a threat to our children’s health. As board members, you can work to ensure that the safety of children in your district remains a top priority. As you continue to serve your community, keep these three hazards in mind, as well as the steps you can take in the event of an urgent situation


Asbestos is silicate mineral often used in insulation materials due to its fire and heat-resistant qualities. Within school buildings, it may be found in pipes and furnaces, ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring and wallboard. Although it is generally safe if left alone, asbestos is extremely dangerous if disturbed in some way. Sources of this disturbance can come from building renovations or repairs.

Health risks

Asbestos is a major health risk when disturbed because of the serious damage it can cause to the body down the road. For one, asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer that affects the linings of the lungs, abdomen or heart. The association between the cancer and asbestos is so strong that court proceedings have taken place for those exposed during home and building renovations.

What board members can do

Board member responsibilities include the provision of adequate school resources to ensure school facilities are properly maintained. In instances when the school board is set to approve construction plans and funding, it’s important to keep in mind the possibility of an asbestos disturbance. If it is known that asbestos is present in the school, the district must hire a “designated person” to oversee the management of asbestos in the building.

In the event that asbestos is disturbed during building reconstruction, school board members and other functionary district employees should hire asbestos abatement personnel that are trained in the Asbestos Model Accreditation Plan.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that can come from a variety of sources in school buildings. Water heaters, science laboratory gas burners and generators can all release the toxic gas if the appliances have been poorly installed or maintained.

Health risks

Carbon monoxide is often referred to as a “silent killer” because of its odorless and colorless properties. Signs of illness or a properly functioning carbon monoxide detector are the only ways to determine if a CO leak has occurred. Symptoms that children, teachers and other individuals in schools may experience in the event of a gas leak include headache, dizziness, vomiting and nausea.

What board members can do

California is currently one of five states that requires carbon monoxide detectors in schools, which will serve as a quick CO leak identifier if a leak does occur. Although it may be the responsibility of teachers and other present faculty to ensure children completely evacuate the premises, board members may be required to hire a professional to locate the source of the leak.

Board members can also make it a priority in their district to regularly inspect all appliances that may cause future CO leaks. Although carbon monoxide detectors will sound in the event of a leak, most will likely only do so when the CO level has reached 30 ppm. The EPA limits exposure to 9ppm over the course of eight hours or 35 ppm over the course of one hour, indicating that health effects can occur at much lower levels of exposure. Regular maintenance of equipment can decrease the risk of a dangerous gas leak in the future.


Lead is a naturally occurring element that can be found in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we use. Sources of lead in schools can be attributed to lead-based paint, older plumbing fixtures and drinking fountains that contain lead-contaminated water.

Health risks

Over time, exposure to lead can be toxic to both humans and animals. For one, children with elevated levels of lead in their blood can face a number of health problems down the road such as slowed growth, lower IQ, hyperactivity and hearing problems. Adults may also experience long-term health effects including high blood pressure and kidney damage.

What board members can do

If lead is discovered in your school district, your ability to help as a board member is indicated by how you respond to the problem. For example, if lead-based paint is chipped or disturbed during facility renovations, be sure to hire a lead-safe certified contractor to remedy the issue. If lead-contaminated water becomes a problem in your district, the school board may want to follow the EPA’s 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools. The approach of training, testing and telling will work towards creating a safe environment for children and faculty members. As reported in previous CSBA blog posts, free lead testing for school drinking water is available and should be implemented.

As school board members, you have the duty and privilege of making sure every child who walks through your district’s buildings are in a safe and healthy environment for learning. With knowledge of potential hazards and the preventative measures you can take, you will bring peace of mind to parents, faculty and students.

Morgan Statt is a health and safety investigator and writer with a focus on public safety, consumer products and trending health news. In her free time, she enjoys running outdoors and crafting the perfect playlist for any situation. Follow her on Twitter @morganstatt.