School Wellness Offers Teachable Moments

February 12, 2016

For Bill Rawlinson, learning from MassCOSH about environmental hazards that trigger asthma in students and staff is more than just a part of his job, it’s also a personal matter.

“Learning about different asthma triggers was eye-opening,” said Rawlinson of Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. “It will help me think about what more I can be doing in my school as well as with my son who is asthmatic. There are a lot more things that I could be doing to help him manage [his asthma].”

Thanks to funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency, MassCOSH is training Rawlinson and 11 other school community members to be Healthy Schools Champions who take action through environmental school audits, identifying asthma triggers that can be eliminated.

MassCOSH’s Healthy School coordinators Tolle Graham’s and Al Vega’s work preventing asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases in school workers and students sometimes starts at the crack of dawn, greeting school staff members turned indoor air quality advocates just as they arrive at work.

“We are looking to prevent what’s happening in Detroit from happening here,” says Vega, referring to Detroit public school teacher’s recent suit against the city's public school system, demanding officials repair moldy, dirty, and pest infested buildings they say are creating dangerous conditions for students and staff. “It’s a sad example of what can happen when school conditions aren’t seen as a priority”

MassCOSH and its partner, the Boston Healthy Schools Taskforce, have been able to ensure that healthy school environments are not an after-thought by integrating environmental health into the official wellness policy for all Boston Public Schools, a big victory for over 65,000 students and staff who work and learn in these old buildings.

With this new mandate, the BPS Health & Wellness Department provide stipends to the 12 Healthy Schools Champions, opening the door to further improving school conditions.

“With the engagement of our healthy school champions, we are hearing more about ways to improve BPS policies such as the green cleaning policy, which requires the use of certified green cleaners for the majority of school cleaning.” said Graham. “However, the policy did not cover products and procedures for all before and after school programs. We are really excited to be working with the Taskforce to expand this policy so that all programs will use the approved products and receive the same training. We are also finally moving away from using a known asthma trigger, bleach, which will be replaced with a more asthma friendly hydrogen peroxide based sanitizer and disinfectant”

 “By expanding our cadre of healthy school champions, we are showing more and more schools that they can be more proactive about improving the environmental quality of their schools,” explains Graham. “I don’t think the schools involved are seeing it as something they just have to do, but something that really benefits everyone.”

For many of these new champions, MassCOSH’s trainings are the first time they really considered the effects of mold, clutter, chemicals, pests and other hazards on their well-being.

“I really liked learning about green cleaners,” said Mattahunt Elementary staff member Kyla Tavares. “I just used to use whatever was available like bleach and wipes. Being able to understand the difference between sanitizers, disinfectants and green cleaners will help me change the way I clean.”

“Quite a few eyebrows are also raised when we start talking about how many asthma triggers there are in school buildings,” said Vega.

With more trainings set to take place this spring into summer, MassCOSH is piloting a training to involve peer leaders from its Teens Lead @ Work program as young Health Schools Champions. For more details, please email