Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Chemical chaos drill a chance to practice response to school disaster


Toxic and flammable chemicals stored and used during school day at Long Beach Schools in Mississippi.

Police, firefighters and medical technicians participated in a 'chemical chaos' drill Friday at Canopy Oaks Elementary. During the exercise, the 'victims' who might have been exposed to hazardous chemicals — played by local Boy Scouts — were rinsed at washing stations and doused with fire hoses. A beat-up Dodge Stratus was the focus of the efforts of the Big Bend Regional Bomb Squad as they deployed a remote-control robot to deal with a bomb situation as part of the event.
By Nancy Swan, Director of Children's Environmental Protection Alliance (Children's EPA)Police, firefighters and medical technicians participated in a 'chemical chaos' drill Friday at Canopy Oaks Elementary. During the exercise, the 'victims' who might have been exposed to hazardous chemicals — played by local Boy Scouts — were rinsed at washing stations and doused with fire hoses. A beat-up Dodge Stratus was the focus of the efforts of the Big Bend Regional Bomb Squad as they deployed a remote-control robot to deal with a bomb situation as part of the event.
Police, firefighters and medical technicians participated in a chemical emergency drill at a Florida school  to practice emergency medical response, rinsing volunteers at washing stations and dousing them with fire hoses.    
 As a result of my chemical injury while teaching school and as Director of Children's EPA, I learned that without identifying and assessing the properties of the spilled chemicals, rinsing off contaminates with water can be dangerous and washing off toxic chemicals is not always an option.  Tragically,  parents,  school officials, school personnel, and those responding to chemical emergencies in schools, are too frequently kept in the dark.  
In a real school chemical or environmental emergency at least three roadblocks threaten not only the safety of schoolchildren and personnel, but also the safety of first responders, including: 
  • failure to immediately identify chemical information to First-Responders, 
  • school and industry non-disclosure policies and accountability failures, and 
  • lack of government chemical and product safety regulation, oversight, and enforcement.  
Toxic product use in schools increasing.
As the need for "green" products and cost-effective renovation rises in US schools, so does the use of untested, imported, and unsafe chemicals.  Spray On Foam (SPF) insulation, roofing, and sealant  SPF is an example one such product which is heavily  marketed to school boards as a "green," and "safe" product to reduce energy costs and environmental friendly.  By using misleading branding such as "Greenguard." , The American Chemistry Council, maintains that SPF, "provides a comfortable, healthy, and safe environment conducive to learning.  The ACC's claim is pure fiction.

In reality, OSHA warns that SPF products
contain Diisocyanate is considered a carcinogen,  and the exposure to SPF is known to cause brain damage and impair learning, cause asthma in otherwise healthy adults, and permanently burn and scar lung and respiratory tissue.  The risk and damage to children is even greater.  Diisocyanate is a class of isocyanate, responsible for half a million deaths and injuries in India.  During SPF application, curing, and with heating and wear can off-gas chemicals highly dangerous to children, including fire-retardant. University of California at Berkeley NewCenter reports, "Prenatal and childhood exposure to flame retardant compounds are linked to poorer attention, fine motor coordination and IQ in school-aged children"

Comfort and cost savings can kill.
Even with fire-retardant, products like SPF can ignite, catch fire, and smolder. Use of polyurethane products in school construction, renovation, equipment has increased, placing children, school personnel, and First-Responders at increased risk for death and injury.   SPF is applied in large areas of schools, like roofing, crawl spaces and in wall insulation and is extremely flammable.

When ignited, SPF releases large quantities of thick, toxic smoke and  cyanide which causes "coma, seizures, apnea, and cardiac arrest, and death following in a matter of minutes." Even with firet-retandants, products like SPF can kill before there is a chance of escape or rescue. The deadly  Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island exposed the dangers of polyurethane foam products.  Despite the known health and environmental hazards of SPF use in schools, ongoing SPF toxic tort lawsuits, and thousands of injured schoolchildren, school districts still opt to install SPF products. 

Danger of ignorance and secrecy. 
The recent deaths of dozens of Fire Fighters at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas evidence the dangers faced when First-Responders are denied the name and property of chemicals involved in the fire, explosion, or chemical spill.  In some instances, water use by Fire Fighters can trigger violent and explosive reaction with many other chemicals, increasing rather than decreasing danger to schoolchildren.  High pressure or sprayed water rinses can not only react, it can force contaminates into lungs, eyes, digestive systems, and can damage skin tissue.  Who is responsible for supplying chemical information?  The answer will shock you.

Emergency responses to chemical disasters and spills are hampered not only by lack of chemical information, but by the lack of state and federal regulation, oversight, and enforcement.  In the wake of the West Fertilizer Plant explosion,  media reported that chemical information had been denied to victims and responders, routinely hidden by chemical companies under the banner of  National Security as "security-sensitive information." Restriction of information is not just practiced by chemical companies.  Schools officials and administrators of chemical facilities near schools are not required to notify parents, staff, or the community of the name and quantity of hazardous chemicals stored, used, or disposed of on or near school property.

In the event of a chemical contamination or spill, school and chemical company non-disclosure policies can interfere with and mislead emergency response, placing schoolchildren at risk. 
  • School officials are not required to warn or notify parents of injured children or first-responders of the name of hazardous chemicals or dangerous environmental agents on school grounds.  
  • School officials can and do hide school chemical and environmental injuries from parents and the community by exploiting child privacy laws under (FERPA).  
  • Parents and media personnel who attempt to expose child injuries at school are intimidated into silence by school officials who initiate legal proceedings under guise of  FERPA. 
  •  School officials can threaten personnel with non-renewal of employment contracts to discourage reporting of chemical incidents and injuries. 
"Green" and "Safe" schools can be toxic.
Due to recent public pressure, the EPA and CDC ATSDR have finally publicly acknowledged what the these public health and environment agencies
No safety tape to protect children, no warning to parents
have known for a long time, that children can be harmed by a larger number of chemicals and at significantly lower exposure levels than adults.

Despite publication of child vulnerability to chemical injury, federal officials and politicians often declare an area, building, or disaster area "safe" for families, without sufficient science to back their claim.  Adding to the confusion, US health and environmental agencies attach "green"  to products, some of which are also identify as "toxic."  In short, "green" doesn't mean a product is safe,  and "safe" doesn't mean a product or environment is safe for children.  

Lesson in Toxic Politics.
President Obama's response to the BP oil spill is such an example.  In the wake of the BP oil spill Obama visited state along the Gulf of Mexico and voiced his commitment to improve economic health of  Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida and to protect fish and wildlife.  No mention was made by Obama concerning the effect of the BP oil spill on the health of people, children, or clean-up crews.  Instead, President Obama, in an effort to boost tourism, then declared the Gulf Coast beaches and food from the Gulf as safe.  Obama then encouraged "Americans to come down to visit the area’s beaches," and declared, “Seafood from the gulf today is safe to eat." The President did not mention that his administration had no child safety standards, and no scientific data to determine if beach water, food, or contaminate levels were "safe" for American children.  In short, President Obama's
Clean-up and warning signs on Gulf beaches.
sacrifice of child health to boost economic health was wrong.  Dead wrong.     

Obama recommended that families vacation on Gulf beaches.  Note the BP oil spill clean-up crews.  Would you risk your child's health to boost the economy of a disaster area?
 Even US agencies are guilty of greenwashing products, some of which they also identify as "toxic."  These agencies also admit that products or environmental conditions determined as "safe"can be dangerous to the health of children.  Basically, "green," "safe," and "non-toxic," have little to no meaning when it comes to protecting the health of children. Confused?  So are school boards and purchasing agents.  Due to conflicting, misleading, and false claims by government and industry, school boards and purchasing agents are easy prey to advertisers who label their products "green" and "safe."

Who is in charge of protecting schoolchildren?
The most important information for parents to know - before a chemical spill or contamination at or near their child's school - is that there are no federal child safety standards or reporting systems.  The CDC and NIOSH admit advertisers of toxic chemical products, including SPF, fraudulently use words "green" and "safe"  Despite that, no one is in charge of protecting kids from hazardous chemicals and environments, particularly in schools.  

OSHAEPA, and the CDC are not charged, authorized, or funded to protect schoolchildren. No one, not even the US President, can truthfully say that a disaster area is safe for kids and women, or that a product, food, or chemical is safe for families.  There is no "yard stick" to use for measurement --no safety standards for children. Protecting children from chemical spills at school and home, and responding to fires, disasters, and chemical spill emergencies is roadblocked by confusion, and array of misinformation and conflicting statements from both industry and government agencies about what is and what is not safe for kids.

First responders have no guidance either. No government agency, including EPA has set standards of chemical safety to protect child health or to determine safe exposure levels for children.  Which is why President Obama had no science to back his claim that the Gulf waters and beaches were safe for families.  OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)  sets chemical and environmental safety standards limited to protect mature, healthy, male workersOSHA regulates safe working conditions for employees of chemical companies and applicators  OSHA regulations do not apply to first-responders, "bystanders," or children who are not employees and therefore not protected by any local, state, or federal agency safety regulations

What if school officials claim a product or application is safe to use around schoolchildren?
No one except a pediatric toxicologist can answer that question.  School officials and advertisers cannot make that claim without a scientific, unbiased pediatric toxicology study to back it up. 
US safety regulations and warning labels on chemical products apply only to adult male workers, not to women, not to occupants of buildings, not to non-workers in the vicinity who could be exposed to the chemicals, and do not apply to children.  There are no chemical safety standards to warn if a chemical is hazardous to infants, children with illnesses, or fetuses of pregnant women, who are extremely vulnerable to chemical injury.  So, if there are no safety standards, how can you determine if your child's school is safe from chemical and environmental toxins?
Middle school location across street from West Fertilizer Plant explosion
You can't. 
Despite West Middle School's very unwise location just across the road from the doomed West Fertilizer Plant, parents were kept in the dark about chemicals that could harm schoolchildren within the plant plume area.   Unfortunately, school-zone property is often allocated near industrial areas and roadways within reach of chemical and toxic product exhaust plumes and spills.  If you suspect your child may have been exposed to or injured by chemicals at school, on school grounds or and property, asking help and chemical information from school officials is an experience out of the dark ages.   

Toxic chemical information kept out of reach of adults.
One mother found out the hard way.  Tennessee's Williamson County School District continues to encourage parents of elementary students to join their children during lunch.   The Tennessee representative of Children's EPA was shocked to find her child along with other five-year-old children cleaning tables in the cafeteria with pesticide.  She wrote a respectful letter then verbally appealed to school officials to discontinue child application of the pesticide.  Her letter included EPA's advisory that the cleaner was identified as a "pesticide," and include a copy of the product label warning the product was to be "stored out of reach of children."  The mother continued her appeal for more than two years.  When her final appeal failed, she organized a group of parents to enlist their support, unprepared for what would happen.

Williamson County School Board's response was to threaten the mother with prosecution under FERPA and barring her from entering school grounds.  This case, and others involving chemical exposure and injury, in which delayed action or access to chemical information, misinformation, and intimidation by school officials can impair emergency response and intervention, furthering harm to children.  Parents of exposed and injured schoolchildren are left scrambling and begging to government agencies to help them, eventually wondering what went wrong and who to listen to.  Those who persist discover that the government can't help protect schoolchildren, and chemical companies can hide behind non-disclosure laws, and school officials can refuse to provide information.  Who should parents listen to?

Alarm bells that don't sound.
Don't wait for others to sound the alarm that toxic chemicals were used at school or make the tragic mistake of assuming a child is safe because they are on school grounds.  Listen to your child first.  Believe your child rather than interrogate them.  If something didn't smell right, burned their eyes or skin, or fumes made them sick, don't be afraid to interrogate school officials, but get their answers in writing.  Unexplained sleepiness, dizziness, nausea, rashes, breathing or sinus problems, or fainting may be a result of poor air quality, presence of toxic chemicals or substances, solvents, or industrial-grade cleaning agents.  

If you pose questions to school officials, know that school officials are not required by any law or regulation to inform parents when their schoolchild has been exposed to or injured by dangerous conditions.   While school officials are quick to run to their lawyers for protection, they are slow to inform parents about school related injuries, knowing that parents typically give up and tend to believe information given by the school or media, even if it is obviously wrong or misleading. Don't give up and don't give in.

Lessons in deception.
What gives school officials the license to deny chemical and environmental information to parents? Answer: There are no Government agencies or laws to prohibit school officials from:
  • covering-up exposures and injuries to children,
  • denying parents chemical/environmental  information, 
  • giving misleading, untruthful information about child injuries, especially if the information could be used for litigation,
  • using child privacy laws to hide child injuries, 
  • absolving themselves of accountability through Sovereign Immunity, and
  • utilizing school board attorneys and legal fees, though paid by taxpayers, to enable protection for school officials while denying information to parents.
Federal agencies absent from schools.
If your child has been exposed to or injured by chemicals at school and school officials deny or give wrong information, which federal agency can you contact for help?

Answer: There are no government agencies authorized or funded to: 
  • investigate the event, record, and report school injuries,
  • require schools to report chemical or environmental incidents to parents and community,
  • limit or prohibit application, storage, or disposal of hazardous chemicals on or near school property,
  • determine after a chemical spill if school property is safe for children,
  • help parents with pediatric toxicology and chemical terminology, and 
  • protect children, parents, or staff who expose unsafe conditions at schools from harassment, intimidation, loss of employment, or defamation. 
Toxic schools endanger children.
In 1985, I was seriously and permanently injured while teaching in Long Beach
SPF being sprayed on school during school day
School District in Mississippi. The Spray on Foam (SPF) roof insulation and sealant product that had been applied during the school day also injured two dozen schoolchildren. I notified parents to locate injured children and supplied parents and the community with chemical information.

As a result, Long Beach School District School Board demanded that I tender a statement from my physician certifying I was well enough to teach, knowing that I could not.  No other teacher had been forced produce a doctor's certification after illness or injury.  But I was too sick to teach, so my paycheck was withheld and I was fired. 

School fails grade in safety for children and personnel.
No first- aid station facility had been set up and no emergency care was provided for injured children, though recommended by OSHA for workers.   The school and contractor (MIRI Roofing, Jim English, owner)  attempted to cover up the chemical spill and the injuries, denied through the media  that tankers of toxic chemicals had been stored for two weeks next to the cafeteria, then denied that toxic chemicals had been applied during school hours.

School office personnel further denied both chemical information to parents who requested it, denied emergency medical attention to the injured, and denied seriously injured students permission to call their parents for help.  To protect their own liability, school officials refused to pay or reimburse injured teachers and parents of the injured children for medical bills arising from the chemical spill.  We soon discovered why no local, state, or federal agency would investigate or help.

Today, twenty- eight years after the injuries at my school from SPF, schoolchildren are no safer.  Due largely to secrecy surrounding school chemical incidents, school exposures and reported injuries to schoolchildren and personnel from SPF application have increased.  Chemical injuries are not limited to SPF.  A large number of toxic chemicals are being manufactured and used in schools and on school playgrounds and sports areas.  The proliferation of conflicting information and laws adds to the confusion about safety of toxic chemicals storage, use, and disposal near children.
Leaking SPF tanker parked outside school cafeteria

Green products that can kill and seriously injure kids.
Spray On Foam (SPF) roofing, insulation, sealant and other products are manufactured on-site which means that the company is exempt from safety regulations that pertain to factory manufacture.  SPF and other toxic products are heavily marketed to schools boards  with colorful ads deceptively labeling SPF a "green," and "safe" energy-saving choice. 

Conflicting claims by federal agencies often add to the confusion about what is safe to use around schoolchildren. Although the EPA warns SPF fumes and off-gassing endanger child health and can cause serious and permanent injury to schoolchildren,  LEEDS and FEMA endorse use of SPF application in schools.  It gets even worse.

Chemical factories sited in our nation's schools.
Basically, SPF and poured poly-resin flooring are two of many reactive chemical manufacturing processes done on-site in school buildings on school property, and often applied when children are present or present during incomplete curing and off-gassing of products.

On-site manufacture of toxic products in schools like SPF is not regulated or restricted by any state in the US, or by the US government.   SPF application is common in schools and is particularly dangerous because its principle chemical is one of the most deadly chemicals manufactured, is violently reactive to water, can be explosive, and is a deadly fire hazard.  Despite the dangers to children from Spray On Foam insulation, ads tout that SPF is a "green," "non-toxic" product frequently purchased by school boards.    

Earlier this year, health risks inherent from on-site manufacture of SPF prompted both the Connecticut House and Senate to voted unanimously in favor of House Bill 5908, to require state safety certification of SPF applicators.  The Bill was spearheaded by Connecticut homeowner, Richard Beyer, who testified before the Committee.  But, just when passage of H.B.5908 looked promising, it was vetoed by Governor Dan Malloy.  Malloy claimed he was protecting public health by favoring no regulation of the chemical industry instead of some regulation.  Political smoke and mirrors. 

First aid for school chemical emergencies.
Granted, governors, school officials and personnel are not trained in child toxicology.  But, those charged to provide a safe learning environment need to abide by the commitment of their office, to be held accountable for chemical and environmental safety for schoolchildren.  Chemical and product safety labeling should provide guidance, advisories and warnings to protect children who may or may potentially be in the vicinity during application and to prohibit storage, application, manufacture, and disposal of toxic substances on or near school property.  Government agencies must be charged and funded to provide guidance, oversight, and enforcement to prevent chemical contamination and spills at or near schools.

A prepared and coordinated emergency response to a chemical spill or dangerous environment seems like a good public relations campaign and exercise to prepare First Responders.  Unfortunately, the sense of security and preparedness gained by such an exercise is undermined by the very agencies who have consistently failed to protect kids.  Rather than concentrate all efforts on emergency response, prevention of chemical and environmental injuries at school is better. Much better. 

Nancy Swan
Director, Children's Environmental Protection Alliance (Children's EPA) http://www.childrensepa.org
Toxic Justice: A Teacher's True Story of Toxic Injury and Battle For Justice  http://www.toxicjustice.com
Twitter:@ToxicJustice
Facebook:  Children's EPA
Facebook: Toxic Justice 
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