Sure Steps to Healthy Indoor Air in Schools

Indoor air quality in schools is a concern to parents and school officials, due somewhat to the poor condition of some school buildings.

iStock_000002425146SmallOlder schools may need repairs including fixing leaky roofs or dealing with problems with HVAC systems. As some schools face budget cuts or struggle with how to allocate funds because of decreased budgets, the urgency of building repairs is sometimes overlooked.

Unfortunately, poor IAQ within a school may affect occupants more than in other buildings because, typically, students and teachers are closer together.

In many schools, there are four times more occupants than in most office buildings that have the same amount of floor space, according to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

Children are more vulnerable to health risks from poor air quality because their bodies are still developing, they breathe more per pound of body weight compared to adults, and they are not as capable of recognizing or protecting themselves from environmental pollutants, according to Healthyschools.org.

Children’s exposure to air pollution has been linked to respiratory problems including asthma and allergies, hospitalization and poor school attendance, according to the organization.

The EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agencysays there is evidence that the physical environment and poor IAQ affects learning. Health problems from poor air quality increase absenteeism and reduce academic performance.

Even simple changes in room temperature and humidity can positively affect learning, reports the EPA. Cooler temperatures and modest relative humidity have the most positive impacts on increasing children’s abilities to perform tasks that require concentration.

Building factors most commonly related to poor IAQ include:

  • Water damage, moisture, mold and mildew
  • Animal dander, dust mites and other biological allergens
  • combustion byproducts such as nitrogen dioxide, which can come from space heaters, furnaces, stoves and other appliances
  • Tobacco smoke
  • VOCs from chemicals such as formaldehyde, pesticides, solvents and cleaning agents
  • Outdoor pollutants, such as vehicle exhaust
  • Moisture and dirt build-up in HVAC systems
  • Poor ventilation rates.

Healthyschools.org suggests the following issues may be signs your school building has an IAQ problem:

  • The building’s roof leaks, or the building has flooded.
  • You notice damp smells in the building.
  • After a renovation, the building isn’t given enough time to air out.
  • The building is completely carpeted.
  • Children and other building occupants come home from the school with odd smells on their clothing.
  • Children have health or learning issues that are only present while they are in the building. They often do not experience the same issues at home, or in other settings.
  • The budget for building maintenance and repair is low and because of that repair and maintenance tasks are not performed regularly.

Another area that seems to have a great impact on IAQ is ventilation. The EPA says most ventilation rates in buildings are low, and there is a clear connection between ventilation rates and academic performance.

Some controlled studies show students perform school work at higher speeds as the ventilation rates are increased, reports the EPA.

And the organization reports that children in classrooms with higher ventilation rates score higher on tests than children who are housed in poorly ventilated rooms. Additionally, higher ventilation rates means the transmission and spread of infectious diseases is reduced.

Healthyschools.org recommends school districts should do the following to address IAQ:

  • Keep fresh air intakes open
  • Discourage the use of perfume, cologne, as well as the of use low-odor, less toxic chemicals when cleaning, painting or performing other tasks that require chemicals
  • Use nontoxic pest control methods
  • Position idling buses in areas furthest from the building
  • Enforce no-smoking rules
  • If the building floods or has other water problems, remove materials, such as carpet, from the building immediately
  • Keep upholstered furniture out of classrooms
  • Start a committee to address IAQ issues and concerns
  • Make report forms available to parents and officials so they can report IAQ concerns
  • Keep a record of health symptoms reported to the school
  • Train staff on IAQ issues.

For more help, use the EPA’s Tools for Schools self-help kit. The kit includes a best practices guide, industry guidelines, sample policies and an IAQ management plan; all are tools that can help schools improve their IAQ for little to no cost.

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