How to Help Improve the Air Quality in Your Child's Classroom

The Green Mama with advice on how to help clean it up!
looking through a doorway into a school hallway

A reader wrote that her child was about to start kindergarten in the fall and she was concerned about the air quality of his classroom. It is an older school and doesn’t look well-maintained. She was very concerned about the health of the children and wanted to know how she could help address it.

Long before my children were school-age, I had worked on my first school greening project. That project was a full-time childcare and preschool facility, and we did it all: from bamboo floors and organic mattresses to wooden toys and cloth diapers. You can imagine my disappointment when it came time to put my own children in school and I realized that most schools are still struggling with whether to have perfume policies and how to handle asbestos. It was also humbling to be in the role of “concerned parent” [read: annoying and ignored] rather than in the role of green consultant [read: highly paid and respected]. So, what is a parent supposed to do to make the biggest changes with the least amount of money (and annoyance) in greening a classroom? Campaigns to improve school lunches, reducing classroom waste, and donating green supplies are all great ways to green a school, but to impact the daily health of the children, you will get the most effect from focusing on indoor air quality as a starting point.

Is your child’s school sick?

Your child will spend one-third of his or her day in school and many of these buildings will officially have so many problems as to qualify as “sick buildings.” More than half of all schools suffer from sick building syndrome, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sick buildings cause health and comfort problems in the people that occupy them; most often poor indoor air quality (from mold, poor ventilation, or toxins released from furnishings and finishes) is to blame. Sick buildings can make people, especially children, very sick – like, cancer and asthma sick. They are also associated with lesser, but still devastating, issues such as poor teacher retention, lower student performance, and more frequent absences. One of the best ways to determine if there is a real indoor air quality problem at your school is by monitoring your child’s health and behaviour. If after a day at school, or soon after the heat is turned on in winter, your child routinely complains of headaches or has asthma attacks, this might be a sign that something is going wrong.

Why indoor air quality is so important

Indoor air quality tends to be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. These pollutants are particularly hard on children because they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. Poor indoor air quality can cause or trigger asthma in children. Common indoor air pollutants, such as some paints, varnishes, and cleaning products, have even been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, and hormone issues. If a daycare or classroom smells bad (or perfume-y), then something is probably going wrong with the indoor air quality. Bleach and floor cleaners (and waxes), perfumes, air fresheners, and even certain school supplies (like stinky markers) can be common culprits. When walking around the classroom, make sure you use your nose and “sniff” out problem areas.

Three ways a school can improve their indoor air quality (and that you can help implement as a parent):

1. Fragrance-free policy

Perfumes and fragrances, whether worn straight or found in cleaning products, air fresheners, or even in school supplies are often a toxic slew of neurotoxins and are rated among the top 5 worst allergens in the world. Encourage your child’s school to develop a fragrance-free policy for staff, students, cleaners, and school supplies. Air fresheners, sometimes popular in older schools to “mask” other indoor air quality problems, can be particularly harmful.

2. Open the windows

Outdoor air is generally cleaner than indoor air and simply opening the windows can greatly improve indoor air quality. As well, studies are finding that students perform better in classrooms with more daylight and operable windows. Encourage teachers and staff to open the windows as much as possible.

3. Clean up the cleaning routine

While there are lots of rules and regulations that determine how daycares and schools clean, these rules rarely take into account long-term health effects of common cleaning products. Thus, the cleaning products used in many schools contain chemicals (25% according to the non profit Cleaning for Healthy Schools) suspected to be toxic. From the stinky polish they put on the floor to the antibacterial hand soap by the sink, many of these products can be dangerous. “Repeated exposure may increase your child’s risk of developing cancer, reproductive problems, or other serious health conditions,” says the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Luckily, there are an increasing number of resources to help schools switch to green cleaning products. In the U.S., a dozen states have passed the Green Cleaning Schools Act, which mandates green cleaning policies. This helps legitimize your insistence on wanting safer cleaning products for your child’s school. There are also a number of independent non profits and research groups that focus on healthy cleaning in schools.

About Anti-Bacterial Hand Soap

It's school time again, and in every school bathroom in North America you can hear the "splat, splat" sound of anti-bacterial soap squirting onto the hands of school children everywhere. So, what does the science tell us about anti-bacterial products and just how bad are they for our children's health?


Triclosan is the anti-bacterial agent used in many hand soaps (76% of 395 commercial soaps examined in a recent EWG report). It is a pesticide that’s closely related to the super-toxin, dioxin, and has been linked to liver and thyroid problems and to endocrine (hormone development) disorders in children. Triclosan has also been found to have particularly toxic effects on aquatic life. Studies have found that nearly 75% of Americans have traces of triclosan in their urine. The European Union labels triclosan: “irritating to eyes and skin; dangerous for the environment; very toxic to aquatic organisms.” For a comprehensive look at triclosan, check out EDC’s report The Trouble with Triclosan.

Antibacterial resistance

Antibacterial products (including those just made with alcohol) increase your risk of antibiotic resistance. As antibacterial products become more common, some germs can become immune to them and develop into “superbugs” that aren’t easily treated with even high doses of antibiotics.

Hand-washing with soap

“But, isn’t my kid supposed to wash her hands? What can I do instead?” Studies show that washing your hands with regular soap and water is just as effective and has fewer health concerns than washing with those labeled antibacterial. Health Canada recommends fighting antibiotic resistance through preventative behaviors, like avoiding "the use of antibacterial soap and 'bacteria-fighting' cleaning products. These products kill 'good' bacteria which fight bad germs. Cleaning with soap and water, or disinfecting surfaces with a solution of water and vinegar or household bleach is adequate.” All in all, anti-bacterial products are proven problems. If your child's school is using anti-bacterial products, encourage them to try a safer alternative. A REALLY affordable alternative is to use castile soap mixed 50/50 with water in a foaming hand pump. It works, it’s completely safe (even if a kid eats it) and it costs a fraction of the health offending, anti-bacterial products on the market.

Resources to help convince your child’s school/daycare

To ensure you are really getting a green product, encourage your school to buy products that are certified green, e.g. by Green Seal or EcoLogo.

You might also consider bringing a sample of your own favorite green product into school, or show off the power of baking soda and vinegar for cleaning. If your child’s teacher is willing you can use baking soda and vinegar as a safe chemistry experiment with the kids. When I was making the transition from consultant to classroom, I would approach each subject cautiously, asking how I might support the teacher in making the change, bringing in lots of information, and even bringing in healthier alternatives to try. It’s an important issue and a great way to model good citizenship for your child.