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Environmental and Public Health Issues

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Educational institutions are responsible for ensuring that their facilities and practices are in conformity with environmental and public health legislation and comply with accepted standards of care towards their employees, students and the surrounding community. Students are not generally covered under occupational health and safety legislation, but educational institutions must exercise diligence towards their students to at least the same degree as is required by legislation designed to protect workers. In addition, teaching institutions have a moral responsibility to educate their students on matters of personal, public, occupational and environmental safety which relate to them and to their activities.

Colleges and Universities

Large institutions such as college and university campuses may be compared to large towns or small cities in terms of the size of the population, geographic area, type of basic services required and complexity of activities being carried out. In addition to the occupational health and safety hazards found within such institutions (covered in the chapter Public and government services), there is a vast range of other concerns, relating to large populations living, working and studying in a defined area, that need to be addressed.

Waste management on campus is often a complex challenge. Environmental legislation in many jurisdictions requires stringent control of water and gas emissions from teaching, research and service activities. In certain situations external community concerns may require public relations attention.

Chemical and solid waste disposal programmes must take into consideration occupational, environmental and community health concerns. Most large institutions have comprehensive programmes for the management of the wide variety of wastes produced: toxic chemicals, radioisotopes, lead, asbestos, biomedical waste as well as trash, wet garbage and construction materials. One problem is the coordination of waste management programmes on campuses due to the large number of different departments, which often have poor communication with each other.

Colleges and universities differ from industry in the amounts and types of hazardous waste produced. Campus laboratories, for example, usually produce small amounts of many different hazardous chemicals. Methods of hazardous waste control can include neutralization of acids and alkalis, small-scale solvent recovery by distillation and “lab” packing, where small containers of compatible hazardous chemicals are placed in drums and separated by sawdust or other packing materials to prevent breakage. Since campuses can generate large quantities of paper, glass, metal and plastic waste, recycling programmes can usually be implemented as a demonstration of community responsibility and as part of the educational mission.

A few institutions located within urban areas may rely heavily upon external community resources for essential services such as police, fire protection and emergency response. The vast majority of medium-size and larger institutions establish their own public safety services to service their campus communities, often working in close cooperation with external resources. In many college towns, the institution is the largest employer and consequently may be expected to provide protection to the population which supports it.

Colleges and universities are no longer entirely remote or separate from the communities in which they are located. Education has become more accessible to a larger sector of society: women, mature students and the disabled. The very nature of educational institutions puts them at particular risk: a vulnerable population where the exchange of ideas and differing opinions is valued, but where the concept of academic freedom may not always be balanced with professional responsibility. In recent years educational institutions have reported more acts of violence toward educational community members, coming from the external community or erupting from within. Acts of violence perpetrated against individual members of the educational community are no longer extremely rare events. Campuses are frequent sites for demonstrations, large public assemblies, political and sports events where public safety and crowd control need to be considered. The adequacy of security and public safety services and emergency response and disaster recovery plans and capabilities needs to be constantly evaluated and periodically updated to meet community needs. Hazard identification and controls must be taken into consideration for sports programmes, field trips and a variety of sponsored recreational activities. Emergency medical service needs to be available even for off-campus activities. Personal safety is best managed through hazard reporting and education programmes.

Public health issues associated with campus life, such as control of communicable diseases, sanitation of food services and residence facilities, provision of fresh water, clean air and uncontaminated soil, must be addressed. Programmes for inspection, evaluation and control are required. Education of students in this regard is usually the responsibility of student service personnel, but occupational health and safety professionals are often involved. Education regarding sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol abuse, blood-borne pathogens, stress and mental illness is particularly important in a campus community, where risky behaviour may increase the probability of exposure to associated hazards. Medical and psychological services must be available.

Elementary and Secondary Schools

Grade schools have many of the same environmental and public health issues as colleges and universities, only on a smaller scale. Often, however, schools and school districts do not have effective waste management programmes. A serious problem faced by many schools is the disposal of explosive ether and picric acid that have been stored in school laboratories for many years (National Research Council 1993). Attempts to dispose of these materials by unqualified personnel have caused explosions in several instances. One problem is that school districts can have many schools separated by several miles. This can create difficulties in centralizing hazardous waste programmes by having to transport hazardous waste on public roads.



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