When we talk about the performance of schools, we often talk about the “Three R’s.” These are Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. But what about the Fourth R—Respiration? After all, breathing is one thing every student does at school. The quality of the air they breathe there can have a significant effect on both their health and their academic achievement.
That’s why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations have conducted a great deal of research on the indoor air quality challenges facing schools. They found the effects that poor indoor air quality can have on students—and on faculty and staff too. That research has also led to recommendations for steps that schools and parents can take to improve the quality of the air for their students.
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Common Air Quality Problems at School
According to the EPA, about 50% of the schools in the United States have indoor air quality problems. The most common culprits include sources outside of the school as well as inside.
Mold and other biological contaminants can cause big problems in schools. Mold often grows as a result of high humidity and condensation. In some schools, patches of mold growing on damp ceiling tiles are a common sight. This mold releases spores that pollute the air and can cause a range of health problems.
Common biological sources of indoor air pollutants found in schools also include pests such as mice and cockroaches. These can cause allergic reactions and potentially illness due to the germs they spread.
The EPA states that another major air pollutant in schools is gases such as volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde. These chemicals can be released by a wide range of products commonly found in schools These products are including paint, pesticides, waxes, cleaning products and air fresheners, marking pens, particle board, and carpets. Gases can also be released by common school equipment, such as copy machines and printers
Particulate air pollution can come from indoor sources, such as dust and chalk. They also come from outdoor sources, like buses and cars idling outside as students are picked up or dropped off. Many schools are located near major roadways. This may be affected by pollution from the traffic driving by.
Harmful Effects of Indoor Air Pollutants at School
The air pollutants commonly found inside of schools can cause a wide range of health problems. A nationwide survey reported by CNN found that 40% of school nurses said they knew children and staff who’d had negative health effects from indoor air pollution.
According to the EPA, the symptoms that may indicate indoor air quality problems at school include shortness of breath, sinus congestion, headaches, nausea, coughing and sneezing, illness clusters, dizziness, and fatigue.
Indoor air pollution can particularly exacerbate symptoms for students with asthma. Currently, one in ten children in the U.S. has asthma and that number is growing. Mold, dust mites, and other indoor air pollutants have been associated both with triggering asthma symptoms and increasing the risk for developing asthma in children.
Additionally, according to allergist Dr. John Santilli, about 20-30% of people are allergic to dust or mold. Students who must take medications to treat these allergies or asthma may have increased difficulty doing their schoolwork due to the side effects of the medication.
Long Term Effects
These harmful health effects can also increase absenteeism. Missing days of school can lead directly to negative impacts on student achievement. And it’s just hard to do your best work when you’re sniffling, sneezing, and not feeling well!
According to the EPA, the health effects of indoor air pollution seem to be worse for children than they are for adults. That’s because children’s bodies—and particularly their lungs—are still developing. It’s also because children have faster respiration and breathe more air each day, compared to the bodyweight, than adults do.
However, the adults who work in schools are impacted by indoor air quality problems as well. A survey of Chicago teachers found that 25% reported health problems due to air quality issues in their school. Likewise, approximately 1/3 of Washington, D.C., teachers surveyed reported the same. This means indoor air quality can impact teachers’ productivity and absenteeism as well.
Improving Air Quality in Schools
Indoor air quality is clearly a significant issue for our nation’s schools. Here are a few of the steps parents, administrators, and teachers can take to improve indoor air quality.
First, schools should be routinely inspected for sources of indoor air pollution, including the HVAC system. Problems that are found should be corrected in a timely manner, following best practices.
In particular, mold remediation and prevention are extremely important steps for improving indoor air quality. School HVAC systems must be correctly designed and maintained to control humidity levels. Other sources of moisture must be corrected to prevent mold from coming back after remediation.
Using green cleaning products and choosing furniture and other building materials that do not release harmful chemical gases is another important step. Schools also need adequate ventilation systems to bring in fresh outdoor air to replace air polluted by indoor sources.
However, it’s important to make sure the outside air isn’t bringing in even more pollution. Ventilation with filtration can help. So can cutting back on the vehicles allowed to idle outside of the school. Parents can make a difference by turning off their cars while waiting for pick-up and drop-off, and encouraging others to do the same.
Teachers and custodians work together to keep the school clean. Properly disposing of food waste and cleaning up spills can help to keep pests like cockroaches and mice out of the classroom.
Using higher-quality filters for both HVAC systems and vacuums can reduce the dust and other particle pollutants in the air. Simple steps like dusting regularly with a damp rag can help too.
Indoor air pollutants are a serious problem in our nation’s schools. Working together, administrators, teachers, and parents can help to improve children’s health and their academic achievement.