March 01, 2007

2007 Healthy Schools Hero
Diane Ethier, Pomfret Center, Connecticut
Every year to mark the anniversary of the March 18, 1937 Texas School Explosion, I salute a Healthy Schools Hero whose inspirational leadership protects children and teachers from school hazards and unhealthy school conditions.

A Cautionary Tale

On March 18, 1937, in the small oil-rich town of New London, Texas, a series of false economies and efforts to save cut costs in the new school's heating system led to a gas explosion that killed 319 students, teachers and visitors while in the supposed safe haven of a public school.

Today, there is a website ( and a museum dedicated to remembering the "lost generation" and educating future generations about the tragedy and its lessons.  The story serves as a cautionary tale about the failure to prioritize safety and illustrates how painful it is to live with such devastating loss when opportunities to prevent them were overlooked or ignored.  

After the school explosion, laws were passed to require a warning odor in natural gas but other recommendations have yet to be implemented in most 21st century schools -- to hire technically trained administrators for modern school systems, to conduct more rigid inspections and more widespread public education, and to adopt a comprehensive, rational safety code.

Ethier Breaks the Silence

Today, Diane Ethier is a Healthy School Hero because she is an environmental health resource and mentor to hundreds of people. In a variety of roles, she helps others to break the silence about school hazards and to overcome the pervasive denial and indifference about school conditions that that lead to serious illness in schools.  Her courage, her skill as a communicator, and her persistance are bringing the Lessons of the 1937 Texas School Explosion to school systems in her state and far beyond.

Ethier is a retired Calculus and Algebra Teacher who taught for 30 years. She knows from personal experience how school officials typically overlook opportunities to take action when conditions in schools make people sick. 

Now, Ethier is a Training Specialist for Connecticut's US EPA IAQ Tools for Schools program (TfS), a comprehensive toolkit that can help schools prevent and correct indoor air quality problems. She educates school-based environmental health teams to be responsible for ongoing problem identification and hazard prevention and control. 

To date, Ethier has done sixty trainings including IAQ Basics, School Walkthroughs, Refresher and Custodian Programs for personnel from 200 school districts. Ethier has also presented on "Indoor Air Quality in Schools" at both Connecticut Education Association and National Education Association Conferences.  

Ethier is also Acting President of the Connecticut Foundation for Environmentally Safe Schools (ConnFESS) , a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting policies, practices and resources that protect school occupants from environmental health hazards. She is also a part time Organizer for the Connecticut Education Association. She attends the NIH-NHLBI National Asthma Education and Prevention Program (NAEPP) as a voice for occupational and environmental health on behalf of the National Education Association.
ConFESS is the VOICE for Students and Employees

In the past five years, ConFESS is widely acknowledged to be the voice for the growing number of students and school employees who are sick because of polluted school air.  ConFESS is also a leader of a growing state and national network of concerned citizens committed to making health and safety a priority when schools are sited, designed, built, maintained and renovated. 

During National Healthy Schools Day in 2006, ConnFESS promoted an Advocacy Checklist to help parents and school staff evaluate how effectively a school is adopting and implementing its IAQ program, mandated by the new Connecticut Law.

For more information on ConnFESS activities go to 

Diane's Story

Diane Ethier was teaching calculus and algebra in a wing of a high school with a leaking roof, moldy carpets, broken ventilation equipment and poor maintenance.  One press report called it a monument to "budget cuts and deferred maintenance."  It took Ethier three years to figure out it was the building making her sick.  

Finally, after comparing symptoms and location and timing patterns with a fellow teacher who had taught in the same wing of the building, she recognized her symptoms as a mold allergy.  Diane's physicians confirmed that her symptoms were related to conditions in the high school.  Although her colleagues and students were also having symptoms, they feared complaining or did not understand the connection between the building and their illness.  And, her union officials cautioned her not to open her mouth, warning her "You'll get transferred." 

Ethier recognized the need to educate others.  Ethier went to her Superintendent to inform him. However, as in too many other schools, the results of "air testing "showed nothing was wrong."  School officials told her the problem was "all in her head."  

In 1998, her physician Dr. Eileen Storey was doing a National Science Foundation Study on the association between respiratory disease and indoor environments. Her special interest is to develop exposure assessment tools that help characterize indoor risk factors.

When the town selectman turned down Dr. Storey's offer to evaluate the high school for free, Ethier decided she was "not going to take it anymore."  She turned anger into action. Ethier conducted a teacher's health survey.  60% of the teachers reported that they were affected by poor IAQ in the building but only two teachers were willing to say it publicly.   

Turning Pain Into Purpose

Ethier became an advocate for the US EPA IAQ TfS Program. It took persistence and courage. In fact, it took three years plus a change in leadership (a new superintendent, new selectman, and a new union structure) to get her school to adopt the IAQ TfS program. 

The TfS audit system identified serious problems – mold and high levels of carbon dioxide.  As a result, the school made some improvements -- the roof was repaired, carpets were removed from the library and hallways, and some unit ventilators were cleaned.  Maintenance staff stopped covering up problems by spray-painting stained ceiling tiles.

Ethier became the school TfS program coordinator and then the school district coordinator.  However, the more time Ethier spent in the school, the sicker she got.

In 2002, Ethier went on sick leave for occupational lung disease. Dr. Storey specified the repairs and maintenance improvements that were conditions for Diane's return to school. However, the school refused to make the changes because the town was soon to build new high school.  Thus, people continued to occupy the old sick building for two more years.  Eventually, four staff members filed Worker's Comp claims, three were permanently removed from the building by their physicians, and another three chose to retire. While Ethier was out, the TfS program flagged. (The new high school opened for occupancy on September 2005. It already has a leaky roof, mold in air ducts, and other problems.  Ethier knows that "If we'd had Tools for Schools in place for the past ten years, none of this would have happened.") 

In 2001, Ethier joined and eventually became a leader of the statewide grassroots group, Connecticut Foundation for Environmentally Safe Schools (ConnFESS), formerly known as the Canary Committee.  She worked to create legislation to provide a systematic evaluation and inventory of conditions and maintenance practices in schools and to promote policies and resources that protect children and school personnel.     

In December 2003 Diane took early retirement. She was down, but not out. Ethier continued to work to break the silence and to educate her fellow teachers, union members, and legislators about the need for standards for healthy schools. She presented at professional conferences and testified many times before the Connecticut General Assembly on school environmental health issues.  Today, Ethier's health depends on avoiding buildings with poor ventilation, damp moldy areas and fragrances.

The need for more champions

According to the report by Environment & Human Health, Inc., A Survey of Asthma Prevalence In Elementary School Children (2003)  there is a high incidence of asthma in Connecticut's school children and teaching is the most common occupation associated with the development of work-related asthma.  The report quotes surveillance studies of occupational asthma by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that blamed indoor air pollutants as the top two causes of work-related asthma.  (The actual rate is unknown because most cases are not recognized and reported. Tracking work-related asthma and working conditions depends on physicians recognizing and reporting work-related asthma to state public health agencies.) 

Advocacy Works

In 2003 the Connecticut Indoor Air Quality Bill for Schools passed by a 35 –1 margin in the Connecticut Senate and a 150-1 vote in the Connecticut House of Representatives.  The Connecticut IAQ School Law states that all school districts must have a program in place to address indoor air in schools by July 2003. The TFS program fulfills that requirement. The text of the law, P.A. 03-220, can be found at

Kenny Foscue, Health Educator for the Connecticut Department of Public Health and leader of the Connecticut School Indoor Environment Resource Team, calls Ethier "a catalyst."  After inviting Ethier to present at several Tools for Schools trainings, Foscue asked Ethier to become a trainer herself. 

Today, the Connecticut School Indoor Environment Resource Team has 24 coalition partners dedicated to training schools to implement the TfS program. ConnFESS is one of the coalition partners.  Ethier's dream is to see every state with enough funding to do more than just training but to fund follow up training and support for school TfS teams, to track school TfS implementation, and to ensure enforcement of all school environmental health laws.

Lessons Learned

Ethier knows that it is still too rare to find a school where anyone has primary responsibility to protect children and teachers from environmental hazards or to enforce public health, chemical hygiene, occupational health and safety, and occupancy standards.  Every school needs a champion, someone who is a driving force to keep environmental health programs alive and to prioritize health and safety in schools. 

Most significantly, Ethier shows how grassroots organizations, professional associations and state and federal agencies can be allies that enable parents, teachers and school officials to take leadership for school safety.  Most significantly, Ethier shows how grassroots organizations, professional associations and state and federal agencies can be allies that enable parents, teachers and school officials to speak up and take leadership for school safety. 

For more on the US EPA IAQ TfS program, current research on indoor air quality on student performance and asthma, mold, pest management, and chemical cleanout campaigns, go to and National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities .

Countdown to Healthy Schools Day April 30, 2007.  Find Healthy School Day activities and partners at Healthy Schools Network .  

Find additional information and suggestions on school programs and events to improve school safety and health security especially for students with asthma, allergies and other environmentally triggered conditions at .