Sick School Buildings: 53% Of Young Pupils Report Allergic Reactions

Japan Offspring Fund (JOF) Monthly Newsletter
September 2008, No. 233

As Japan goes through a period where school buildings in particular are targeted for reform, some students are spending their school days in a prefabricated environment with toxic chemicals from walls, carpets, curtains and other building materials.

In Miyagi prefecture, we followed the case where young students said, “it is hell” even though toxic contaminants were found to be below levels stipulated by official safety guidelines. Students reported chronic illnesses like asthma, headaches, muscle pain (myalgia), fever, and other serious symptoms. Among 800 people, 38 reported health problems similar to the sick house symptoms known to be caused by VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). VOCs are often found in construction materials such as antiseptics, paint solvents, adhesives agents, wood preservatives, and insecticides.

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Japan Offspring Fund worked with Dr Terasawa Masahiko to try to find the cause of the pupils’ problems. During construction of a new school building, schools let pupils use prefab buildings; Dr Terasawa was alarmed as he received a number of children who had spent only a few days in a local prefab school building. At his clinic, he interviewed the patients, and it was clear that the new school environment was the problem.

“The symptoms were very similar or identical to the known cases of sick house disease,” Dr Terasawa noted. “They can be caused by high levels of harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in building materials. It is well known that formaldehyde causes lung problems, exacerbates asthma and that long-term exposures pose a cancer risk.”

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Dr Terasawa inspected the school, and found that the building was constructed as a square, surrounding an artificial lawn in the center. The ventilation was poor.  Such temporary buildings are becoming common all over Japan. He noted a strong odor or chemical smell that was clearly noticed inside. The principal of the school agreed that in 40 years, they had never had such issues, and that the new prefab building was clearly the cause of the young pupils’ health problems.

Asked to fill in a questionnaire, 53% of the students replied that they had sometimes or always experienced health problems since moving into the new prefab school building. 11% percent reported strong allergic reactions, and 20% replied that they had felt changes in their physiology.

When health officials tested the indoor air, they found levels of formaldehyde, toluene and ethyl benzene, as well as other chemicals, to be below the official guidelines. Yet, the combination of a large number of substances and VOCs may be the reason the pupils reacted so strongly. It is clearly not acceptable to let children spend long hours in an unhealthy school environment. Prefabricated school buildings must be much more carefully examined to avoid allergic reactions and serious health problems among young pupils.

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