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Healthy School Environments

Executive Summary of State School Environmental Health Guidelines

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed these voluntary guidelines1 to assist states in establishing and implementing environmental health programs for K-12 schools in accordance with the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007 (310pp, 828K, PDF). In carrying out this statutory mandate, EPA, along with its federal partners, developed these guidelines to help states2 establish the infrastructure needed to support schools in implementing school environmental health programs. The practices recommended within these guidelines can also be applied, with appropriate adaptation, to a wide range of school-related institutions, including child care and early learning centers.

Protecting children's health and advancing environmental justice are critically important goals for EPA, as reflected in EPA's strategic plan.3 A child's developing organ systems are often highly sensitive to environmental stressors, and children are frequently more heavily exposed to toxic substances in the environment than are adults.4 Children in minority, low-income, and other underserved populations, as well as children with disabilities, can experience higher exposures to multiple environmental contaminants where they live, learn, and play and might be placed at a disproportionate risk for associated health effects.5

School environments play an important role in the health and academic success of children. Children spend 90% of their time indoors and much of that time is spent in school. Unhealthy school environments can affect children's health, attendance, concentration, and performance, as well as lead to expensive, time-consuming cleanup and remediation activities.6 To foster children's health and academic achievement, healthy school environments must be addressed and integrated within the education system.

States can play a critical leadership role in promoting healthy school environments for children. These guidelines build on the foundation established by well-documented strategies and existing federal programs, such as EPA's Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools program and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Coordinated School Health strategy, and provide examples of best practices from existing state environmental health programs for schools. These voluntary guidelines recommend five basic elements and six steps that states can take to build or enhance a sustainable state environmental health program for schools.

To complement the guidelines, EPA has developed a Model K-12 School Environmental Health Program (Appendix A) as a resource that states can customize and share with schools and school districts to help them establish or enhance their individual school environmental health programs. The model program reflects and builds on EPA's Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools program framework and identifies five broad components of environmental health issues that schools need to address to ensure healthy school environments for children and staff. The components are presented in a tiered approach that recommends actions for schools that do not have an environmental health program, as well as actions schools can take to enhance an existing program. The steps outlined in the model program are consistent with many of the priority actions identified as criteria for the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognition award.

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Six Recommended Steps that States Can Take to Build or Enhance a Sustainable State Environmental Health Program for Schools


Assess Existing Resources and Infrastructure Identify a lead office within a state agency that can work with other agencies and assess existing state initiatives and any existing laws, policies, or regulations that address healthy school environments.


Determine Capacity Determine the capacity of each state agency to contribute to an effective state environmental health program for schools.


Develop a Plan Develop an initial plan to establish a new, or enhance an existing, state environmental health program for schools based on available resources.


Implement the Program Work with the lead office or steering committee to ensure the state program is implemented effectively.


Evaluate the Program Evaluate the state program's goals, activities, and milestones to determine whether they need to be revised or expanded to improve the program.


Sustain the Program Utilize the results of state program evaluations to determine the return on investment, make adjustments to the program where needed, and communicate successes.

See our list of frequent questions that address issues such as the purpose, content, audience, and scope of the guidelines.

These guidelines are voluntary and are not intended to replace, amend, or negate policies, statutes, regulations, activities, or guidance related to existing school environmental health programs. By following the recommendations in these guidelines, states can help promote safe and healthy school environments for children and school staff.

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  1. Throughout this document, these voluntary guidelines are referred to as "the guidelines."
  2. Throughout this document, the term "states" refers to states and territories of the United States.
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2010.
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health. (2003). Developmental Toxicity: Special Considerations Based on Age and Developmental State. In Etzel, R., & S. Balk (Eds.), Pediatric Environmental Health (Second ed., pp. 9-36). Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health.
  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2003).  America's Children and the Environment: Measures of Contaminants, Body Burdens, and Illnesses (PDF)(176pp, 1.1M). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA 240-R-03-001.
  6. Buchanan, B. (2007). Sick Buildings, Sick Students: Poor Air Quality and Other Environmental Irritants can Lead to Health Concerns for Your Students and Staff.  American School Board Journal, 48-50.