“The literature in schools has shown increased risk for cough and wheeze in children with asthma, eczema and allergies.”
While gas heaters are being slowly removed as reverse cycle air conditioning is rolled out to the hottest schools in the state, it is not happening quickly, she said. In the meantime, teachers are told to ventilate their rooms while heaters are on.
“Having a heater in the classroom but then having to open the windows is nonsensical,” Dr Charlesworth said. “It is laughable; teachers should not have to choose between warmth and safe air in the classroom.”
A decade ago, the NSW government said it would remove unflued gas heaters after it commissioned a report that highlighted their dangers. But it reversed that decision in 2011, saying the benefit was not worth the expense.
Instead, it would replace unflued heaters at the end of their lifespan, install only flued heaters in new schools and remove unflued heaters when reverse cycle air conditioning is installed under the Cooler Classrooms program.
The department has put out guidelines on using unflued heaters. But the Climate Council report said regular maintenance and proper operation were key to reducing the risk of harm, “but it cannot eliminate the risk”.
The NSW Education Department this year told Parliament’s budget estimates process that almost 2500 unflued gas heaters had been removed from schools under the air conditioning program. Tens of thousands remain.
Michelle Goldman, the chief executive of Asthma Australia said the chemicals also compromised childrens’ ability to learn.
“It is reasonable for parents and children to expect that schools can be safe learning environments and we don’t have to compromise our health to ensure we can benefit, just as every other jurisdiction has made that decision,” she said.
Dr Charlesworth also said unflued gas heaters were a fossil fuel and so were contributing to global warming, pushing up temperatures and increasing the need for air conditioners in schools. “NSW students are being doubly affected,” she said.
A spokesman for the NSW Department of Education said a study by independent consultants found low-nox unflued heating used in public schools was safe. There had been no reports of student health issues over the past three years.
More than 2400 unflued gas heaters have been removed from NSW public schools under the Cooler Classrooms program, and another 2000 are expected to be removed over the next two years.
However, Ms Goldman said the low-nox heaters were not safe. “They’re better than hi nox, but they’re not good enough,” she said. “We’ve been contacted by many parents, especially living in colder climate areas … whose kids were getting sick.”
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