How Colleges Can Create Healthier Campuses: Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

January 18, 2023

By Robin Dodson, ScD and Kathryn Rodgers, MPH

In the first year of the pandemic, a homemade air purifier called the Corsi-Rosenthal box—built from off-the-shelf materials—began finding its way into schools, homes, and offices across the country as a cost-effective way to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Recently, a team of scientists from Brown University and Silent Spring Institute found this simple DIY innovation is also powerful at filtering out harmful chemicals used in furnishings and building materials that linger in indoor air.

The boxes, which researchers set up in more than a dozen rooms at Brown’s School of Public Health, lowered levels of specific airborne chemicals by up to 60 percent. The study is noteworthy in that it highlights another public health threat that higher education often overlooks: chronic exposure to indoor air pollutants.

We’re talking about chemicals such as PFAS in carpets, phthalates in vinyl flooring, and flame retardants in upholstered furniture. These endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which leach out of products and contaminate air and dust, have been linked with a range of harmful health effects including asthma, impaired brain functioning, infertility, cancers, and weakened immune response to vaccines. Many of these effects may not surface until later in life. By some estimates, long-term exposures to EDCs cost the U.S. economy $340 billion each year in healthcare spending and lost wages.

While colleges have responded to the pandemic by investing in public health infrastructure, including improvements in building ventilation, vaccine requirements, regular testing, and mask mandates to curb the spread of Covid-19, higher education’s investments in public health should extend to include reducing harmful chemical exposures as well.

The Healthy Green Campus Project, created by Silent Spring Institute, has been documenting the influence of campus furnishings on people’s exposures since 2014. Through this effort, we’ve been able to partner with several colleges in New England—ranging from small to large, and public to private. We’ve collected dust samples from dorm rooms, classrooms, and common spaces. We’ve analyzed the samples for dozens of chemicals of health concern. And we’ve inventoried the furniture and carpets in various college spaces.

In a study we published in 2021, we found levels of PFAS chemicals were up to five times higher in rooms with wall-to-wall carpeting compared to rooms without. We also found flame retardant chemicals called PBDEs were higher in rooms that had more pieces of upholstered furniture.

But does switching to furnishings without toxic chemicals make a difference? The colleges we worked with were curious to know if replacing their old furniture with new furniture free of flame retardants would lower levels of the chemicals in dust. And, it did. The dust in newly-furnished classrooms with healthier furniture contained significantly lower levels of several harmful flame retardants compared with the dust in rooms that had older furniture.

The impact of our research extends beyond campuses. Starting in the 1970s, manufacturers began adding PBDEs and other flame retardants to furniture in order to meet a certain flammability standard. In a separate analysis, we showed that adding flame retardants to furniture does not in fact protect people from the deadliest fires. These findings, in addition to the serious health concerns, were instrumental in having that particular flammability standard repealed thanks to the collective action of not only students and higher education, but also firefighters, businesses, hospitals, and citizens who successfully advocated for the policy change.

It’s important for colleges to understand that what they put in their buildings impacts human health not just today, but for decades to come. We were surprised to find the pesticide DDT present in dust in most of the college classrooms we sampled. DDT was banned in 1972 in the U.S. because of its devastating ecological impacts and links with cancer. Yet, it is extremely persistent and can linger indoors for years. Now, campuses are faced with the decision of whether to use furniture treated with PFAS chemicals, some of which are more persistent than DDT.

One way schools can promote public health by reducing toxic exposures is to expand sustainability programs on campuses to consider not just their carbon footprint, but also their chemical footprint. Colleges can start by establishing healthier purchasing criteria for new furnishings to help identify safer alternatives that don’t contain toxic chemicals. Thanks to consumer pressure and some legislative initiatives, markets are shifting and more options are becoming available. For instance, major retailers have started selling carpets free of PFAS.

Colleges can receive credit from The US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program for material transparency by requesting a list of chemical ingredients from manufacturers—a good first step. Another way to go is to consult the Health Product Declaration Collaborative, which has a public repository of furnishings with listed ingredients. The Living Building Challenge offers a Petal Certification for furnishings that meet their healthy criteria, and Green Globes, WELL, and Fitwel also provide sustainability certification programs that offer guidance on choosing healthy options.

We have seen over the past two years that higher education has the capacity to quickly mobilize around protecting students and staff from indoor threats like Covid-19. But it’s critical that they take action to address the indoor health risks posed by toxic chemicals in everyday consumer items. Working with students, faculty, and administrators, we have identified actionable steps that campuses can take to create healthier environments for students today and for years to come. In taking these steps, colleges can continue to be leaders in promoting public health and disease prevention.

Robin Dodson, ScD

Dr. Robin Dodson

Robin Dodson, ScD, is a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute with expertise in exposures to consumer product chemicals in the indoor environment. Dr. Dodson is also an adjunct professor at Boston University School of Public Health.

Kathryn Rodgers, MPH

Kathryn Rodgers

Kathryn Rodgers is a PhD student at Boston University School of Public Health and a trainee of the BU Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (URBAN), focused on interdisciplinary methods to tackle urban environmental challenges. She is a former staff scientist at Silent Spring Institute.

Resources or References

Dodson, R.E., K.E. Manz, S.R. Burks, R. Gairola, N.F. Lee, Y. Liu, K.D. Pennell, E.D. Walker, and J.M. Braun. 2022. Does Using Corsi–Rosenthal Boxes to Mitigate COVID-19 Transmission Also Reduce Indoor Air Concentrations of PFAS and Phthalates. Environmental Science & Technology.

Schildroth, S., K.M. Rodgers, M. Strynar, J. McCord, G. Poma, A. Covaci, R.E. Dodson. 2022. Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and persistent chemical mixtures in dust from U.S. colleges. Environmental Research.