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Group Tackles Environmental Hazards at Pennsylvania Schools

When you send your kids off to school in the morning, you expect they’ll be safe. But the group Healthy Schools Pennsylvania says that environmental hazards in and around schools are often being overlooked.

In fact, one in six Americans who set foot in a school building everyday can be exposed to environmental toxins like pesticides and asbestos, according to Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, which runs the Healthy Schools PA program. She says Pennsylvania could be doing more to keep students, teachers and staff in schools safe—particularly, when it comes to environmental hazards like radon.

“We have many states that have passed bills that require radon testing once every five years,” she says. “We have testing of our homes when we have a home transfer, but we don’t have that in our schools.”

LISTEN: “Your Environment Update for May 11, 2016”

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. At a recent summit on school safety in Pittsburgh, Naccarati-Chapkis’ group recognized eight Pennsylvania schools that are taking steps to protect their students and staff from environmental risks.

“One school completely switched to green cleaning products. We’ve had 20 school buildings that have tested for lead in their water.”

The Healthy Schools PA program provides free lead testing kits and works with an independent lab. Naccarati-Chapkis says even incremental or low-cost efforts—like keeping kids off the playground on air quality action days—can make a big difference.

Reporting by Kara Holsopple


Climate Change Is Still a Hot Topic in Public Schools

A survey published in the journal Science earlier this year showed that most science teachers spend as little as an hour or two teaching climate science in a typical school year. But making climate change a classroom priority doesn’t always win you fans.

Craig Whipkey started teaching about climate change at Pittsburgh’s Central Valley High School about 10 years ago. He says he had to get used to being called a “tree hugger.” One parent even wrote an editorial complaining about him. Then higher-ups in the school district called Whipkey into the superintendent’s office.

“I was a second year teacher, and I was teaching a brand new course,” he says. “The school board and the administration wanted to look at my materials. Absolutely, I was sweating.”

Whipkey is not alone in facing pushback on climate education. Just last month, the Quakertown Community School District near Philadelphia turned down textbook recommendations on the grounds that climate change shouldn’t be taught as scientific fact.

That’s something David Evans of the National Association of Science Teachers takes issue with.

“There is no controversy about climate science,” he says. “This is not a fringe area. This is very solid, mainstream science.”

Evans says part of the challenge with climate education is that many teachers didn’t learn about climate change in school themselves and aren’t confident teaching it.

Many states have passed new science standards to include climate education in their curriculum. Pennsylvania’s state biology exam for students currently doesn’t directly address climate change.

Reporting by Julie Grant