Cecil Elementary School launched the first School Flag Program funded by Southwest Pennsylvania Air Quality Partnership Inc. in Washington County Thursday morning.
Students gathered in the school gymnasium to listen to a speaker from the Pittsburgh-based Group Against Smog and Pollution before raising a bright green flag in front of the building to signify good air quality.
The program, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, aims to teach parents, teachers and coaches in Canon-McMillan School District about air quality.
The program focuses on two main air pollutants: ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter.
Poor air quality affects everyone, but children, the elderly and people with breathing conditions, including asthma, face the most risk.
Cecil Elementary Principal Tula Dziak said the school first learned of the program through Al DePaoli, SPAQP chairman and the father of a third- and fourth-grader at Cecil Elementary, and enrolled in the program. The program hopes to teach children the importance of good air quality and a healthy environment.
“I think it’s important to teach this to (the children) because they can make a difference,” Dziak said. “They need to know how it affects them and what they can do to promote and prevent.”
Rachel Filippini, director of GASP, spoke with students about the importance of keeping the air clean and the need to reduce pollution. One particular student activity involved the students running in place, normal at first, then breathing through a drinking straw, and finally breathing through a coffee stirrer. The exercise helped the students understand the need for clean, breathable air and provided a few laughs for the students not participating in the exercise. GASP provided learning materials to teachers at the school to help students identify signs of good air quality.
“It lets them be the spokesperson for their teachers and parents and coaches about air quality,” Filippini said. “By learning about the different colors and about air quality, they can learn how to minimize risk to themselves and others.”
After the presentations, the students gathered outside to watch Dziak raise the green flag. Other flag colors include yellow, moderate health concern; orange, unhealthy for sensitive groups; red, unhealthy for everyone; and purple, avoid all outdoor activity. SPAQP funds the School Flag program, and GASP provides educational materials and guest speakers to local schools. Teachers then choose several lesson plans to go over in class. Dziak also hopes better knowledge of air quality will benefit community members who use the field next to the elementary school for pickup soccer and baseball games.
Currently, six schools in Allegheny County fly air quality flags, and several schools in both Allegheny and Washington Counties hope to join the program in the near future. Betsy Mallison, communications chairman for SPAQP, said the program expects 25 schools in Southwestern Pennsylvania to participate by mid-2014.
“The children, their lungs are still developing,” Mallison said. “And it has an effect. We’re providing them with information to make decisions about recess outside or practice outside.”
Poor air quality is a result of the creation of ozone, which damages cell linings and can cause swelling and inflammation in lungs and airways. It is created when carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, emitted from motor vehicles and factories, combines with organic compounds already in the air and UV radiation from the sun. Another factor is the amount of fine particulate matter, commonly known as soot, in the air. Soot comes from several different sources, including diesel and gasoline vehicles, coal and wood burning, and industrial activity. Too much soot in the air increases the risk of asthma, stroke, heart attack, cancer and premature death.
Dziak said the students started to notice the flag changed from green to yellow last Friday, and she sometimes hears students whispering about air quality passing the office. Starting next week, students will check the Air Quality Index forecast, the national guide for reporting air quality, and raise the appropriately colored flag and reveal the air quality during the morning announcements. The air quality then helps teachers and coaches dedice whether to let children exercise outside.
“Cold weather isn’t the only issue,” Mallison said. “Air quality is also an issue. It allows the school to schedule recess inside or take other actions.”
Anyone can learn more about current air quality conditions by downloading the AIRnow app on smartphones or subscribing to receive daily updates at enviroflash.info.org.