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Toxic Chemicals Need to Be Removed from Schools

Toxic Chemicals Need to Be Removed from Schools

Center for Health, Environment & Justice

More than 13,000 public health professionals across the country gathered in Washington, D.C. at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) annual public meeting where a major policy resolution, Reducing PVC in Facilities with Vulnerable Populations, was passed. The policy resolution “urges local, state and federal governments and decision-makers to consider phasing out the use and purchase of flexible PVC in building materials, consumer products and office suppliers in schools, daycare centers, medical care facilities, nursing homes, public housing, facilities for special needs and the disabled, and other facilities with vulnerable populations when cost-effective alternatives are available.”

“This resolution by one of the largest associations of health professionals in the United States is an important new voice calling for government agencies to take action to address the risks posed by flexible PVC products,” said Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. “The APHA has now formally recognized the hazards that PVC and phthalates pose to children’s health in schools and daycare centers.”

PVC is a plastic commonly found in building materials like flooring, carpeting and roofing, as well as products that schools, hospitals and other institutions purchase such as computers, cell phones, backpacks, lunchboxes, 3-ring binders, IV bags and other medical devices. Chemicals such as phthalates, which are added to make PVC soft and flexible, are released from these PVC products and pose avoidable public health risks.

This comes at a time when a growing chorus of leading businesses and healthcare institutions are supporting efforts to reduce the use of PVC. Large corporations like Wal-Mart, Target, Apple and Google have announced policies to reduce or phase out PVC in products and/or packaging. Just a few weeks ago, the largest healthcare purchasers in America, with a purchasing power of more than $130 billion, announced they will be asking suppliers whether or not their products contain toxic PVC plastic and phthalates. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program provides incentives to avoid building materials such as PVC that release Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins (PBTs) and contain phthalates.

A 2011 study found PVC is the most widely used hazardous plastic in the world. Congress has enacted legislation banning phthalates in children’s PVC toys, but they are widespread in other PVC products in schools, hospitals and other facilities with vulnerable populations. Due to the environmental health hazards of phthalates, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently developed a chemical action plan for phthalates, more than 90 percent of which are found in PVC products.

The policy was enacted by the APHA in light of the widespread hazards flexible PVC poses to children and other vulnerable populations through the release of hazardous chemicals such as phthalates, dioxin and vinyl chloride. The APHA policy statement:

  • Urges governmental bodies to educate administrators, purchasing staff, employees, parents and care-givers about PVC hazards and safer alternatives in schools, daycare centers, medical care facilities and other facilities with vulnerable populations.

  • Urges state and federal governments to consider requiring labeling of PVC used in products, and consider requiring product manufacturers that sell PVC products to schools, daycare centers, medical care facilities and other facilities with vulnerable populations to notify purchasers of the amount of PVC and the specific chemical name of additives used in individual products.

  • Urges state and federal governments to consider providing financial incentives for schools, daycare centers, medical care facilities and other facilities with vulnerable populations for the development, purchase and use of safer alternatives to PVC.

  • Urges local, state and federal governments and decision-makers to consider phasing out the use and purchase of flexible PVC in building materials, consumer products and office suppliers in schools, daycare centers, medical care facilities, and other facilities with vulnerable populations when cost-effective alternatives are available.

  • Urges state and federal governments, in enacting such phase-outs, to consider policies that alleviate short-term economic impacts on the PVC production workforce, and to also consider economic benefits to workers in industries making safer alternatives.

  • Urges the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and other federal agencies to research the link between asthma and other health impacts, and exposure to phthalates and other additives released from PVC products.

The American Public Health Association is the oldest and most diverse organization of public health professionals in the world. There are over 22,000 APHA members. The Association aims to protect all Americans and their communities from preventable, serious health threats and strives to assure community-based health promotion and disease prevention activities and preventive health services are universally accessible in the U.S.

For more information, click here.


The Center for Health, Environment & Justice exists to mentor the movement to build healthier communities by empowering people to prevent harm caused by chemical and toxic threats. We accomplish our work by connecting local community groups to national initiatives and corporate campaigns. CHEJ works with communities to empower groups by providing the tools, strategic vision, and encouragement they need to advocate for human health and the prevention of harm. Following her successful effort to prevent further harm for the people living in contaminated Love Canal, Lois Gibbs founded CHEJ in 1981 in order to continue the journey. To date, CHEJ has assisted over 10,000 groups nationwide. Details on CHEJ’s efforts to help people and communities prevent harm can be found here.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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