My summer is coming to an unavoidable end as I start my last week as a KIWI summer intern and get ready to head back to college. This year I will have my last first day of school, making me look back nostalgically on how exciting going back to school can be. I used to love going back-to-school shopping, picking out my first day outfit, seeing all my friends and classmates, and signing up for school activities. For all kids, many parts of going back to school are fun and exciting–but there can also be some hidden hazards. From transportation to lunches and recess there are health risks students may be exposed to–but there are things parents can do to help.
About 90 percent of school buses run on diesel fuel, resulting in diesel exhaust emissions that kids are exposed to while riding on the bus. A study featured in Environmental Science and Technology showed that harmful levels of exhaust can concentrate inside buses regardless of whether or not the windows are open. Kids can then be exposed to the exhaust in loading and unloading areas because idling causes concentrated areas of air pollution. These concentrated areas of air pollution inside and around the buses can trigger asthma attacks and cause respiratory disease. Easy ways to limit your child’s exposure to diesel exhaust are to drive them to school yourself, start a carpool group, or have them walk or bike to school if you live close enough. If taking the bus is the easiest option for your kids you can help limit the pollution by starting an anti-idle campaign or fundraise for new clean replacement engines. Visit epa.gov/otaq for information about the Clean School Bus USA Program and other ways to get involved.
Another potentially hazardous period? Lunchtime. There is growing controversy over the food being served in schools, but there could also be safety concerns with lunches that are brought from home. According to a new study by the University of Texas, 99 percent of preschoolers’ lunches that were brought from home contained foods that had reached unsafe temperatures (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit). These foods could end up developing bacterial contamination leading to food poisoning and bacterial infections. The study also found that even when lunches are packed with an ice pack they are not entirely safe from temperature contamination. The best way to avoid this health hazard is to pack only non-perishable foods or foods that can be kept at room temperature safely for up to 6 hours (unpeeled fruits and veggies). For healthy snacks try mixed nuts or dried fruit and for main meals try classic PB&J sandwiches or crackers with hard or wax wrapped cheese. Foods that have a high risk of contamination and should be avoided are lunchmeats, dairy, peeled fruits and veggies, and especially mayonnaise. The study also suggests doubling up on ice packs and using insulated lunch boxes to ensure safe temperatures. If you have a hard time fitting multiple icepacks try freezing your kids juice boxes or water bottles – they’ll keep the meal cool and melt by lunchtime.
Recess is a time for kids to run around with friends and play make believe but it is also a time that they can be exposed to pesticides. It is common for schools to use potentially harmful pesticides to keep their grounds nice and green but some pesticides are linked to many health problems like asthma, child leukemia, liver damage, and kidney damage. Kids are at an increased risk during recess when they can easily come into direct contact with pesticides on the playground. To reduce these recess risk start a pesticide-free school campaign and talk to you school administration about using an integrated pest management system instead of regularly scheduled spraying. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends using integrated pest management as a safer way to reduce pesticide risk and exposure to children. Check out epa.gov/pesticides for more information on how integrated pest management works and its benefits.