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McKeesport Area to improve environmental health

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 7:49 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Andrew Ellsworth of the Healthy Schools Collaborative discusses symptoms of exposure to toxins in the air during a meeting with McKeesport Area staff on Wednesday morning.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Andrew Ellsworth of the Healthy Schools Collaborative addresses Michael Matta, Kristen Giran, Anthony Moranelli, Timothy Gabauer, Marla Hayes and Mary Ann Plance during a meeting with McKeesport Area staff on Wednesday morning.

As one of two Western Pennsylvania districts enrolled in the region's first initiative to improve environmental health conditions in K-12 schools, McKeesport Area is piloting the Healthy Schools Collaboration.

Moving forward on a partnership that began in the spring, collaborator Andrew Ellsworth met on Wednesday with a network of McKeesport Area administrators and teachers to begin developing an action plan for green cleaning and integrated pest management.

By the start of the 2013-14 school year, McKeesport Area participants will evaluate the district's current buildings and grounds procedures, many of which are in line with the Healthy Schools platform, and establish a timeline for modifying procedures and policies that will guide maintenance and teaching staff to be more conscious of environmental health.

“We have to start with a needs assessment,” McKeesport Area director of federal and state programs Michael Matta said. “We need to figure out what we already have in place and build from that a plan for what we need to be more efficient.”

Reaching out to the teaching staff could be as simple as presenting healthier options at each building's staff meetings, assistant high school principal Mary Ann Plance said.

“Awareness is a big thing right now,” Plance said. “We're becoming more aware by participating in these meetings, and we're going to share this information with our staff.”

With that awareness will come a significant buy-in, Superintendent Timothy Gabauer said.

“They'll start to see the bigger picture,” he said.

Gabauer said the Healthy Schools Collaboration seems to be something McKeesport Area staff will embrace. With issues of indoor air quality and environmental health being hot topics around the world, he said, people are open to “green” concepts that can be applied to daily routines for custodial and teaching staff.

“Being a science teacher, I have to clean labs daily,” Marla Hayes said. “Vinegar, baking soda and a few other ingredients make some of the best natural cleaners. People might not know that.”

Educating staff about clean, nontoxic solutions is a big part of starting a district-wide green cleaning movement, Ellsworth said. Because products are available on retail shelves, he said, consumers assume these items are fully tested and all effects are known.

“We have to be discriminating consumers,” he said. “Chemicals are in everything these days. We need to be more judicious in how we use them and how often.”

Ellsworth presented green cleaning practices and products that will be part of the McKeesport Area assessment. He also talked about integrated pest management that will focus on a prevention-based plan, rather than extermination.

“What we should be using as a last resort, we often see was the first plan of action,” Ellsworth said of business and household applications of pesticides, usually neurotoxins. “Prevention is the base of the pyramid. Chemical pesticides are at the very top.”

While McKeesport Area buildings may not have significant pest issues, Ellsworth said, the district should examine its procedures to be sure prevention is the prevailing theme.

McKeesport Area administrators said they are interested to see what progress develops from the Healthy Schools Collaboration.

“The McKeesport Area School District is proud to be teaming up with the Healthy Schools Collaboration to affirm that best practices are in place for a healthy environment in our buildings,” McKeesport Area public relations and communication specialist Kristen D. Giran said. “Bringing another positive program to our schools and creating awareness in our community during this exciting time seems like the perfect fit. Our staff is excited and motivated to work together in making this collaboration a success.”

With a brand new elementary building set to open in January 2014, the Twin Rivers Primary/Intermediate School will be a U.S. Green Building Council LEED-certified structure — an opportunity to try something new on an already environmentally favorable project.

“Thinking about your new building and how you can start fresh, hitting that with a brand new program is great,” Ellsworth said.

He suggested using a high performance cleaning program as a model can expand into other buildings in time.

Meetings are planned for every other month in McKeesport Area's participation in the Healthy Schools Collaboration. The next session will come before the start of school in August.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or

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