By Dorothy Wigmore
Have a mold or other indoor air quality (IAQ) problem at school? Who are you going to call?
In New Jersey, there are some unique resources. Besides union reps and activists, New Jersey’s public sector IAQ standard [NJAC 12:100-13.1 (2007)] requires employers have a trained “designated person” responsible for prevention, maintenance and problem-solving.
School nurses are involved too. A variety of programs expect them to have a key role in identifying and solving IAQ problems.
IAQ is about providing healthy, clean air for staff and students in school buildings. Problems arise with ventilation problems, mold contamination, renovations, construction and activities inside or outside the school (e.g., idling buses). Regular cleaning and maintenance products give off vapors that can cause health problems. Mold—which gets into the air—can cause a wide variety of serious reactions, including asthmatic incidents, other breathing problems, skin rashes and immune system issues. (See February’s Review column Got mold in your school? for more about preventing mold. Visit njea.org/issues/health-safety to find it online.)
It’s such an important issue for schools and other public buildings that the state passed the New Jersey Indoor Air Quality standard [N.J.A.C. 12:100-13] in 1997. In the New Jersey Department of Health, the Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) program administers the regulation and provides model programs, training and other resources. (See “for more information” on next page.)
The link between nurses and IAQ issues takes several forms:
• The growing number of students and staff with asthma makes IAQ a key problem-solving topic (e.g., to avoid mold, allergy-related dusts, scented products, many cleaning products).
• Nurses are expected to be part of an IAQ team and attend PEOSH workshops with the district “designated person.” (Nurses earn continuing education units (CEUs) for going).
• They are key players in the Pediatric/Adult Asthma Coalition of New Jersey (PACNJ)“asthma-friendly” school award program, and the related Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification program.
• Nurses present workshops required for teachers’ annual asthma education (NJSA 18A:40-12.9) and are usually responsible for the school’s required nebulizer and applying mandated asthma treatment plans (NJSA 18A:40-12.8).
• The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit includes a checklist for health officers/school nurses.
• In PACNJ and PEOSH materials, nurses are expected to pay attention to“green cleaning,” whether it’s training, choosing less toxic cleaning products (e.g., Safer Choice, Ecologo or Green Seal approved) or helping staff understand the problems with disinfectants and their use (see side bar).
The state’s model IAQ program recommends that nurses be the go-to people when staff members want to report possible IAQ-related health symptoms. It also suggests that nurses log staff complaints to help identify patterns that may indicate IAQ problems. Indirectly, it also includes the nurse as part of an IAQ Team. (The team is required to get the PACNJ award and recommended in the EPA’s Tools for Schools materials.)
Given that nurses are likely the only ones in the school to be on top of who’s getting sick or reacting to various things, they can see patterns and changes that others need to know about. The New Jersey State School Nurses Association publication, Promoting Health and Learning: School Nursing Practice in New Jersey’s Public Schools recognizes the nurse’s key role in IAQ when it notes that “The school nurse should carefully document health complaints that may be exacerbated or caused by poor indoor air quality and discuss the concerns with school administration. Allergens, mold, and other indoor air quality issues may impact student and staff health and attendance.”
School nurses don’t have to work alone around IAQ problems. PEOSH workshops allow them to get to know the designated person and discuss how they can work together. It’s an opportunity to clarify their own role, learn who else is involved (e.g., local education association leaders/members, school administrators), gain confidence about reporting patterns and asking questions, and legitimize their interest in preventing IAQ-related illness.
“I want to learn how to pick up issues, to make me a bit more aware of what’s going on as I go through the building, and who to reach out to if we need an intervention,” says Laura Hynes. A school nurse, and vice president of the Bergen County Vocational Technical School Education Association, she is going to the April PEOSH training (see Page 69).
Staff education offers nurses another opportunity to gain trust and find allies. The EPA recommends that school nurses help teachers “develop activities that reduce exposure to indoor air pollutants for students with IAQ sensitivities” (e.g., asthma or allergies). The checklist (see PEOSH resources) reinforces this.
Similarly, the PACNJ Asthma Friendly School Award requires nurses to deliver a 50-minute in-service video to meet the state law requiring annual asthma education for school staff, and to attend the PEOSH IAQ training with the district “designated person.” The Sustainable Jersey for Schools program works with PACNJ, providing resources about IAQ, among other topics. Participation can lead to recognition for the school and promote its sustainability activities.
The workshops are held regularly at different locations. Saturday sessions, designed with nurses in mind, run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 6, 13 and 27. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to register.
Invite the school nurse to join the local’s health and safety committee, or have the nurse be a resource for the committee and vice versa.
Organize a meeting with the NJEA UniServ field representative, school nurse, the IAQ designated person and the local’s health and safety committee, to talk about IAQ issues and processes for reporting and fixing problems. Follow through with regular check-ins. Report the discussions to the local association executive committee and membership.
Support members with IAQ concerns. If the district does not fix problems, consider filing a PEOSH complaint in conjunction with other strategies. Make sure to seek the help of the school nurse and designated person.
Provide information to members about the nurse’s role in IAQ problem identification and problem-solving and “green” cleaning issues (e.g., purchasing, evaluation).
Promote nurses and designated persons as attendees at PEOSH trainings.
Join the Healthy Schools Now Coalition, which works to ensure safe, healthy and modernized schools for all New Jersey staff and students. Go to: bit.ly/wecaction for more information or contact Heather Sorge, HSN campaign organizer at the NJ Work Environment Council at email@example.com.
Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, work organization/stress and education. A former journalist, the Canadian has worked in the U.S. and Mozambique and been involved in efforts to prevent violence on the job since 1989.
NJEA brochure: Organizing for Better Indoor Air Quality.
New Jersey IAQ standard and related resources (including the checklist)
Registration for IAQ training in April
Sustainable New Jersey for Schools Indoor air quality review
Promoting Health and Learning: School Nursing Practice in New Jersey’s Public School, New Jersey State School Nurses Association
“Regular” cleaning products often contain toxic chemicals, including those that cause or trigger asthma, affect reproductive systems and some that can cause cancer.
“Green” cleaning is increasingly required by purchasing policies. These options use nontoxic methods or much less hazardous chemicals. For example, microfiber products remove bacteria and dirt, reduce ergonomic-related injuries and save money. Combined with a third-party certified (e.g., Safer Choice, Ecologo, Green Seal) detergent, they will remove up to 99 percent of germs.
Disinfecting can be confused with cleaning. Realistically, it is needed in very few circumstances. Cleaning usually does the trick. Bleach—a common disinfectant—causes or triggers asthma.
For more about the links between IAQ and cleaning and green cleaning for schools, click here.