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Guest authored by Michelle Gaither, Environmental Engineer at the Pollution Prevention Resource Center. 

This past school year, while my kids were learning, several parents and teachers also learned a lesson about healthy classrooms and clean air.  At my kid’s elementary school, many teachers endeavor to save paper and efficiently teach a lesson via personal white board/slates and dry-erase markers. So, daily, in up to 15 classrooms, 24 or more students each open up a dry-erase marker, for 10 to 30 minutes, to complete a lesson on their own slate.

The problem with dry erase markers

I have often walked from the roomy hallways of the school, into a math class to help out, only to be blown over (and somewhat nauseated) by the overwhelming stench of dry-erase marker fumes.  Regular dry-erase markers contain solvents, and typical low-odor markers don’t seem to live up to their name.

I, for one, don’t buy the low-odor, non-toxic claims on the labels of some of the marker brands!  And, it is most certainly not a low odor level when 24+ markers are open and in use in close quarters at one time.

The students seem to have desensitized to the smell over time or developed “olfactory fatigue”; possibly analogous to the famous frog escapee after being thrown into boiling water, who wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to escape if the water had heated up slowly.  (I, entering the classroom from fresher air, would be the frog thrown into boiling water – and the students would be the frogs who started out in warm water but never escape).

Another environmental issue with these markers is that they dry up fairly quickly, especially if not capped properly by young hands, and must be thrown out and replaced.  This is costly and wasteful.

What we did about it

A fellow school mom (and TFF staff scientist, Erika Schreder) and I began conversing about this dilemma — out of concern for exposure of solvents to the students.  Through our pursuit of another way to teach, without the solvent exposure, we gratefully found and accepted a small amount of money from the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program of King County to try out some alternatives to the traditional dry-erase markers.

For six weeks, we tried three alternatives: refillable, truly low-odor markers called Auspen® (in two classrooms), erasable white board crayons (in several classrooms), and paper and pencil (in one classroom where the teacher was previously suffering from headaches several times per week).

Our pilot study looked at functionality, cost, and odor level.

Our results

We found that three alternatives to regular dry-erase markers all reduced or eliminated improved odor levels, but the Auspen® markers won the popularity contest among teachers.

More specifically, we learned that:

  • All classrooms reported elimination of odor with the alternatives, and the teacher who had suffered headaches reported they stopped;
  • Paper and pencil eliminate all odors, but do cost slightly more than markers and slates;
  • The Auspen® emitted no detectable odor during use, even when the entire class was using them;
  • The Auspen® does require parental volunteer time for re-filling and re-tipping (or “re-nibbing”, as we call it), and, if they dry out – they tip is easily salvageable by adding new ink to the marker.  (No waste!)
  • Only one classroom out of four opted to continue using white board crayons—they are harder for little people to erase, and leave a fair amount of waxy residue scattered about the classroom floor, slates, and storage containers;
  • An estimated 1900 dried-up dry-erase markers are thrown out annually (for a school population of 400 students);
  • The cost of alternatives, from lowest to highest, is:  crayons, traditional low-odor markers, Auspen®, and finally paper.

For the next school year, we have lots of teachers clamoring to get a set of the Auspens®.  We are hoping to find funding to purchase enough for all the classrooms that want to replace the old stinky markers with use them.

For more information on this trial, visit PPRC’s rapid response webpage or contact [email protected]

Michelle Gaither, Environmental Engineer at the Pollution Prevention Resource Center, is a West Seattle mom and an ardent environmentalist who works to learn about, implement, and educate others on ways to reduce chemical exposures at homes and school(s).