We need to teach elected officials about school pollution.

Several badly designed teacher’s pay proposals now before the N.C. Legislature claim they will pay teachers more if they do their jobs well.

They will not.

The proposed new laws would have educators’ pay raised only if their student’s learning improves year-after-year on state-wide tests.

This is profoundly unfair to teachers in older school buildings.

Learning is impacted by many things besides the teachers, one of the most powerful of which is the quality of air the students breathe.  If the classroom air is not rich in oxygen and has high pollution, learning is reduced by one or two letter grades.

Teachers in older schools: say goodbye to your promised pay raise.

 

The EPA reports that half of all classrooms in America have poor indoor air quality. [1] Our 4 years of classroom surveys confirm this.

If you are an educator working in an old-and-not-updated school building, there is no way your student’s learning can keep up with the students in a new school building down the street.

These soon-to-be-voted-on state rules are like football referees mandating UNC players to play Duke while the UNC players are required to wear 10-pound ankle weights.  Fans would be outraged.

 In fact, it is worse than that, because the football players lose a game. The kids lose their future.

If you follow our efforts, you know that when we started The Pollution Detectives back in 2017. Our efforts were based on the notion that there were new, accurate, and easy-to-use instruments available that could be used by citizens to “make invisible pollution visible”.  We tested a range of them and set up a free lending library to empower pollution detection.

We also discovered that one-in-five Americans either works in or attends, a public or private K-12 school – 66,000,000 children and their guardians.  And from a ‘leverage’ point of view, this population comes with lots of state and national communications channels we could use to share our findings. So we launched our effort in this area.

We started by gathering together equipment to test the quality of the air inside the schools, survey for lead in the drinking water, and place meters to look for radon gas. Cooperative school districts worked with us through the process and helped us to refine the methodology.

 

We have learned that:

  • about half of all schools have issues with indoor air quality that lowers student learning by at least one letter grade and triggers asthma.

  • only a few states require that schools be inspected for lead in the drinking water.

  • most inspections for radon gas are legally triggered when a building is sold – and since schools are rarely sold, they are not inspected for radon – the second leading cause of lung cancer in America.

  • Schools are one of the major sources of leaking refrigerant gasses – which are between 1,000 and 7,000 times more climate-changing than CO2.

We also realized that our efforts were being limited by the size of our budget and staff – which has led us to think about continuing to expand our effort by training students to be the Pollution Detectives.

To do this, we are going to begin a process of creating what educators call “Curricula Modules”.  These will be ‘off-the-shelf’ several-day-long units of study that the teacher can drop into a wide range of courses in science, environmental studies, health, or use for special events like science fairs. The students will learn how to detect pollutants and learn about their health impacts and their costs to society.

Below you will find a very brief description of one of the modules we will be developing.

I will be sending out additional modules in the coming weeks.

Module # 7: Human Consumption of Plastics

The average American consumes as much as a credit card worth of invisible plastic each week. [2],[3]

Although the plastics industry frequently touts the ability to recycle plastic, most of the plastic made in the world winds up in water, where it breaks down into invisible, but long-lasting pieces that can be absorbed by plants or algae and/or eaten by wildlife.  It is not removed from public drinking water supplies, and much of our food also contains it.  For example, the bodies of fish, clams, crabs, and other water critters contain plastic that they have eaten.[4] Bigger fish eat smaller fish, then humans eat the big fish, and the higher up the food chain you go, the more plastic humans consume.

This tiny invisible plastic acts like a clean-up sponge that gathers toxins and pollutants in the environment. When you eat the sponge and swallow these invisible plastic pieces, in addition to adding plastic to your body, you are bringing those poisons into your body.

In schools, microwaving food wrapped in plastic (school cafeteria servings) transfers the plastic to the food.

Students will be taught to examine water at home and school for microplastics using coffee filters, dyes, and microscopes.

This module will focus on student-led detection and remediation/avoidance behaviors schools can take to reduce this threat.

If you know of educators who would be interested in working on projects like this, have them contact me. And if you know of funding sources, please tell me.

Authored by Francis Koster Ed. D

[1] https://www.lung.org/media/press-releases/50-of-schools-have-poor-5

[2] https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/americans-consume-some-70000-microplastic-particles-year

[3] https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/full/10.1289/EHP8936

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