Cleaner air for kids

Portable classrooms pose health risks, so parents must advocate for a safe environment

Nineteen years ago, my wife had reason to visit our daughter’s third-grade classroom at Marigold Elementary School. It was located in one of the portables that have been a feature of Chico schools for decades.

She noticed an irritating smell that she recognized as formaldehyde, a chemical that is used in building materials and is linked to cancer and childhood asthma.

She sent a letter to the principal, along with some photocopied articles about the dangers formaldehyde posed. She never heard back from him.

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that another of my daughter’s teachers, a friend of ours, had bronchial cancer. Now retired, she had worked in one of the portables for nearly 30 years. I learned too that in recent years as many as a half-dozen teachers at her school who had worked in portables also had cancer.

I don’t know whether the portables caused their illness. It may be coincidental. But parents of the thousands of Chico kids in portables should know that the only large-scale study of portables, done by the California Air Resources Board in 2004, found inadequate fresh air during 40 percent of classroom hours.

It also found higher levels of formaldehyde that exceeded the state’s chronic-exposure limits in nearly all portable classrooms. Levels in portables also more frequently exceeded acute-exposure limits designed to protect against respiratory problems.

Portables serve a purpose. They give schools the flexibility to handle fluctuating enrollments at a low cost. But they aren’t meant to be used indefinitely. They’re cheaply made, often have lousy HVAC systems, and fall apart over time. And yet there are portables in Chico schools that are nearly 40 years old.

My friend, the teacher with cancer, urges parents of children in portables to be attentive. Notice the indoor air quality when you visit their classrooms. If the air has a strange smell or often seems stuffy, ask the principal to put in a work order to have it tested. Vigilant parents have the power to protect their children from contaminated classroom air.