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Allegheny Valley, McKeesport Area districts study effects of modern chemicals in schools

| Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 8:41 a.m.

Allegheny Valley School District is following in the footsteps of Springdale's favorite daughter by analyzing the chemicals used in district schools.

Fifty years after Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring” warned of the dangers of pesticides, the district is inaugurating an environmental health program to study the impacts of modern chemicals.

Allegheny Valley is one of two school districts participating in a pilot program called the Healthy Schools Collaboration. It's an initiative funded through the Heinz Endowments. McKeesport Area is the other school district involved.

The collaboration is informed by “A Review of Environmental Health in K-12 Schools,” a 2011 Heinz study of Western Pennsylvania schools that identified three low-cost, big-impact improvements for many schools: eliminating the use of pesticides on school grounds, finding safer alternatives for cleaning products and preventing school buses from idling.

“The research shows that environmental health has not been top-of-mind for many of our local school districts,” said Caren Glotfelty, senior program director at Heinz Endowments. “Implementing some relatively simple changes can dramatically improve the learning environment.”

Allegheny Valley Superintendent Cheryl Griffith said the group of administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents formed to guide the district's participation in the initiative opted to tackle a review of district chemicals first.

“It appears our team is going to center the focus on chemicals for science classrooms as well as maintenance,” Griffith said. “It will involve becoming more educated about smart purchases, effective uses, proper storage, as well as appropriate or acceptable disposal.

“Probably a spinoff of that, too, is to look at what we have in place as far as policies and guidelines to see what we should develop or refine,” she added.

The group started meeting in January, and Griffith expects the review and implementation to take about a year.

Chris Allman, a high school biology teacher who chairs the science department, said reviewing the chemicals used and stored by chemistry and other classrooms will be part of the study.

“There's a lot of stuff that, over the years, accumulates that needs to be processed and dealt with appropriately,” he said. “Most of the things, you can't just throw them away.

“(The review) forces us to take the time to look at it more closely to make sure we have what need and dispose properly what we don't need anymore.”

Griffith noted that after the recent high school renovation, many things got relocated during or after construction. That helped draw attention to the district's array of products.

Allman said the review won't be focused just on the science department.

The group will look at how all teachers can improve air quality in their classrooms, perhaps by ensuring that stacks of paper and other materials aren't blocking air flow or gathering dust.

“You're so used to your environment, you don't really pay much attention to the stuff that goes on around you,” Allman said. “Here, we're sitting at the table with everybody and they all have a little different perspective. Things are good, but they could probably be better.”

Cesareo Sanchez, the district's director of buildings and grounds, said his department will study the chemicals it uses, how they're stored and if safer alternatives exist.

“It's an opportunity for the custodians and myself to learn a little bit more about our chemicals,” he said. “The first thing is to get an inventory of our existing chemicals and see how we are using them, what are the better ways to use them and find out if there are better chemicals that are more friendly to the environment.”

Sanchez said the review should benefit not just students, but staff and visitors as well.

Also participating in the district's study is Jeannine McCutcheon of Springdale. A former chemistry teacher at Deer Lakes, McCutcheon has children at Springdale Junior-Senior High, Colfax Upper Elementary and Acmetonia Primary schools.

“I have an interest in all of our schools,” McCutcheon said. “If safer alternatives are out there, we want to have that for our kids and the teachers and staff.

“I'm really interested to see if it will make a difference in absenteeism and the health in general of the district,” she added.

Griffith said the study will be at no cost to the district. She said participation in the Healthy Schools Collaboration will make the district eligible for a grant, but the specific amount won't be determined until a formal plan is prepared.

“It's a great opportunity for not only our staff but also our students and community members to get involved in a common initiative to help increase our awareness of a healthy environment,” she said.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or

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