Invisible chemical agents are threatening the health of schoolchildren across the country.

Chemicals that cause symptoms of maladies attributed to sick building syndrome were detected in July inside a new building at Chowa Elementary School in the western Tokyo suburb of Chofu.

When the semester started in September, eight children complained of poor health.

Although readings taken between July and November showed that the concentration of these chemicals had gradually declined to a safe level, teachers and parents are still worried.

This is one of a number of schools nationwide experiencing problems linked to sick building syndrome, which is believed to be caused by exposure to volatile organic compounds released from building materials.

Symptoms include headaches, respiratory problems, itchy and inflamed skin, and eye irritation.

Problems caused by chemicals released from new materials used to build houses and condominiums have constituted a serious issue over the past decade.

According to Toshio Yamazaki, principal of Chowa Elementary School, the parents of the eight students who fell ill said their children were suffering from headaches, atopic dermatitis, bloodshot eyes and nausea.

Of the eight, three have moved permanently to a neighboring school, three are temporarily at another school and the remaining two are staying at home, according to Yamazaki.

According to tests carried out at the school by a company specializing in environmental research, the volatile compound formaldehyde was detected in high levels in three classrooms in July.

The concentration levels exceeded the tolerable limit set by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

Concentration levels of toluene, another volatile compound, exceeded the limit of 0.07 parts per million in all 16 rooms.

In one classroom, the toluene concentration level was 38 times the limit, according to the company.

Although the toluene level fell below the limit in all rooms during one check in September, it rose back above the limit in one classroom in October.

In late November, the school used a simplified measuring instrument to carry out further tests. It found that the level of toluene in the offending room had finally fallen below the ministry limit, according to the local education board.

Kazuji Hosokawa, an official of the Chofu board of education, said the firms tasked with erecting the buildings tried to use fewer materials containing harmful organic compounds.

For instance, they used plywood, which contains the least amount of formaldehyde, and an emulsion paint containing less toluene.

After the students complained of sickness, the board of education and the school received advice from the Sick House Syndrome Association, an Osaka-based nonprofit organization.

According to Hosokawa, no other schools in Chofu have lodged any sick building syndrome complaints, while local doctors have little experience of diagnosing and treating the sickness.

“The school doctors and health experts said they cannot diagnose the syndrome because no national standard on the diagnosis is established,” he said.

All students at Chowa Elementary School underwent medical examinations in October. These checks were carried out by five school doctors and a dermatologist associated with the nonprofit organization.

The results have been examined by the group, and the school will be informed of its conclusions early this month.

Emi Maruta, chairman of the school’s parent-teacher association, said she had barely heard of sick building syndrome before the cases at the school arose.

“We cannot see what chemicals cause what kind of sickness. As parents, we are wondering what is the best course to follow,” she said.

The PTA has bought plants that are said to absorb chemicals released by building materials, she added.

Hiroyuki Uehara, a representative of Sick House Syndrome Association, said the problem at schools should have come to light before the recent spate of cases.

Uehara claimed that, while the board of education and the school in Chofu have collaborated with the Osaka group in an effort to solve the problem, a number of schools and local boards of education are not taking the issue seriously or are keeping quiet due to the close ties between local governments and construction firms.

“Schools and boards of education have to protect children. But they are sacrificing the health of children for their own interests,” Uehara said, adding that education and medical officials must learn about the dangers these chemicals pose.

Under volatile organic compound guidelines set out by the education ministry in February, schools are expected to measure the classroom concentration levels of four volatile organic compounds at least once a year.

If these concentrations exceed ministry limits, schools are required to single out the materials that emit the chemicals and take measures to reduce them.

In July, the ministry established a panel tasked with researching chemical emissions at schools nationwide and addressing the problem.

Dermatologist Yukio Sasagawa, deputy representative of the Osaka group, explained that volatile organic compounds irritate skin and mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth and throat. They also cause headaches and fatigue.

Formaldehyde is a strong stimulant and is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a probable carcinogen, he said.

Sasagawa, who examined children at Chowa Elementary School in October, found that several children were suffering from atopic dermatitis, although he could not establish a clear link between the disease and the chemicals because emissions from the school building materials had already fallen below government limits.

Sasagawa said the school must monitor the situation continuously, as the concentration of formaldehyde can rise in the summer when the temperature goes up.

Shin-ichi Tanabe, a professor at Waseda University’s department of architecture and a member of government panels on sick building syndrome, explained that the problem is caused by adhesives and synthetic building materials containing volatile organic compounds.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, use of these materials has increased as the number of skilled craftsmen has decreased and demand for swiftly erected buildings has mounted, Tanabe said.

Another cause of the syndrome is the airtight nature of newer buildings and houses, according to Tanabe.

Although the buildings are more energy-efficient than old wooden houses, they have little natural ventilation and chemical emissions from the properties thus remain dense, he said.

To combat sick building syndrome in schools, construction companies should use plywood and fiberboard, which contain less formaldehyde, and employ aqueous adhesives, when constructing buildings, Tanabe said.

Sasagawa meanwhile said that greater collaboration between administrators and the industries involved is crucial to curbing the problem.

“To cure the symptoms of the syndrome, we need to find the materials emitting chemicals and remove them,” Sasagawa said. “But we doctors cannot do that.”

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