Keeping the classroom chemical-free

Chemical products may pervade information your school environment, often with labels that are incomplete or misleading about their ingredients and the health hazards they pose. Eight types of chemical exposures in the classroom that can be targeted for practical improvements are discussed below.

In some cases, individual teachers and educational support professionals have the ability to implement changes. In other cases, modifications to district policies will be required to effect change. Local associations should work with their UniServ representatives when policy changes are needed. Two common-sense rules will help avoid exposing staff and students unnecessarily to toxic chemicals:

  • Never use a toxic chemical when a harmless one can be substituted.
  • Never use an aerosol when another form is available. Aerosols form tiny droplets that can remain suspended in the air and inhaled deeply into the lungs. Consider using a liquid form that can be poured onto a cloth for wiping.


A recent report from Women’s Voices from the Earth revealed that many common cleaning products and air fresheners contain toxins, including reproductive toxins and carcinogens. Cleaning with soap and water, followed by rinsing, is the best way to clean classroom surfaces, such as desks, tables, chairs, and floors.

Wet wipes are a common product that may contain toxic pesticides. Avoid products with any hazard warnings on the labels, and use only products containing alcohol. Simply washing hands with soap and water remains the best way to clean your hands and face.


If blood or vomit are present, a l:10 dilution of household bleach in water may be used on hard surfaces after cleaning.

Air fresheners and scents

Any product designed to spread fragrant scents around a room can be a real problem for people with allergies or asthma. Several known allergens have been detected in these products, even some marketed as fragrance-free. The highest levels are found in fragranced air fresheners.

Many asthma sufferers “are chemically sensitive and find such products irritating,” according to Dr. Stanley Fineman, an Atlanta allergist, “and there’s really good data showing their lung function changes when they’re exposed to these compounds.” If teachers or students have asthma, allergies or sensitivity to fragrances, it might be a good idea to avoid not only air fresheners, but personal products with fragrances. While the subject can be delicate, some honest discussion may overcome resistance.


Pesticides are poisons and are often toxic to humans. New Jersey has a law requiring Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in schools, adopted in 2002. IPM involves using nontoxic methods first, such as swatting or vacuuming up insects, as well as preventive measures such as repairing sources of water invasion, and storing food in tight-fitting containers. If you have a pest problem in the classroom, consult your school IPM program.

Whiteboard markers

Schools should aim for low toxicity markers with the lowest odor and small tips, to minimize odor and health hazards. All markers contain a solvent. The same property that makes them dry fast — volatility — causes their odor to spread quickly. The most toxic marker solvents include xylene, toluene, and methyl isobutyl ketone. The least toxic ones are alcohols, such as ethanol or butanol, that always end with -ol.

A useful resource is the Art & Creative Materials Institute, Inc (ACMI), which gives an approval called the “New AP (Appoved Product) Seal.” Products with the seal “are certified …by a medical expert to contain no materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans” according to the ACMI website. You can find their list of 33 approved dry erase markers on their website.

Whatever marker you choose, be sure it is one that can be cleaned off the board with a damp cloth or paper towel. Most markers do not require solvents, even though manufacturers recommend them.

Art materials

Look for low-odor and low-toxicity products, but beware of misleading labels. For example a “water-based” product may contain water as well as other toxic ingredients. Check the manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), and consult Hazardous Substance Fact Sheets from the N.J. Department of Health and Senior Services (NJDHSS).

If you must use a product with toxic ingredients, do so as safely as possible. (See “Art Hazards: Toxic materials abound,” NJEA Reporter, September 2009.)


The beautiful silver liquid that fascinates everyone is highly toxic to the nervous system, as well as to kidneys and eyes. It can be absorbed through the skin, and when it evaporates into the air, it can be breathed into the lungs.

Instruments containing mercury can be found in science rooms and many locations around the school, including nurses’ offices, gyms, boiler rooms and kitchens, in all manner of gauges, thermometers and other mea- suring devices. They are also found in halide and fluorescent light bulbs.

All mercury should be safely removed from the school and disposed of according to toxic waste disposal laws.

Exhaust fumes

Engines of a school bus, car, truck, lawnmower, or other equipment, if running indoors or outdoors, can cause a build-up of exhaust fumes contain- ing a toxic mixture of chemicals. The indoor space may be a garage, a repair area, or a shop classroom. Exposure of staff and students must be controlled through retrofitting and maintaining engines, clean-burning fuels, and building changes as needed, such as exhaust ventilation, closing openings to other areas of the building, not running engines near outdoor ventilation intakes, and carbon monoxide alarms.