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Fighting for Better
Indoor Air Quality in Schools

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Is the air in your school building healthful to breathe -- or is it making people sick? If your school suffers from "sick" air, you can take action.

Ah, fresh air! Maybe the air in your community is delicious to breathe. But what about the air inside your school buildings? Is it healthful to breathe -- or is it making people sick?

Barbara "Sam" Gutman is among the educators fighting for better air quality in schools. Gutman, an art teacher at Colchester Middle School in Vermont, has fibromyalga, a muscular disease. The illness makes Gutman ultra-sensitive to any chemicals in the air.

Gutman wrote her master's thesis on sick building syndrome and its effect on Vermont schools. Now she is Vermont-NEA's volunteer representative to a statewide Indoor Air Quality Committee. The organization also includes members from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state agencies, school boards, the state employee union, and the Vermont Children's Forum.

Vermont isn't the only place with air problems in its schools. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, 46 percent of U.S. schools have difficulties with indoor air quality or ventilation systems. That means millions of school employees and students may have health problems or distress because of poor indoor air.

And experts say the air quality inside schools has deteriorated over the past several decades.

"Since the energy crisis in the 1970s, people just tightened up buildings to conserve energy, and because districts saw savings, they never opened schools back up again," John Guevin of the U.S. EPA stated in the May/June 1998 edition of Teacher Magazine. "Things have gotten worse, and the problem is everywhere."

Leaky roofs on older schools can also cause problems because the resulting moisture can fuel the growth of microbes in the schools' humidifiers or ductwork. In newer schools, pollutants given off by synthetic building materials and furniture can cause air-quality deterioration.

Scientists differ as to whether serious health problems result from indoor air pollution, but widespread anecdotal evidence seems to support the conclusion that they can. The students and teachers in a school who have colds or sinus infections may actually be reacting to indoor air pollutants in the school's ventilation system.

AIR-QUALITY PROBLEMS

Delores Petit quit her job as a secretary at North County Union High School in Vermont after a year on the job when she began getting colds, frequent nausea and vomiting, and migraine headaches, Teacher Magazine reported. During school vacations and weekends, her symptoms would lessen.

Another employee at the school with symptoms like Petit's has left, and a student, Jessica Trahan, who suffered headaches and sinus infections, has been tutored at home at district expense. The Orleans-Essex district had tests done at the school, which has 1,050 students. According to tests, at least 10 of the school's 75 classrooms showed carbon-dioxide levels higher than the acceptable federal standard for adequate ventilation. Carbon dioxide is not hazardous, but the EPA says a high reading means inadequate fresh air in a building.

Administrators have taken action to reverse air-quality problems in the 150,000 square foot school. Ventilation in the auto shop was improved and use of any potentially harmful chemicals by the maintenance crew was stopped. A new computer-monitoring system oversees carbon dioxide levels in designated spots in the building.

School administrators who made these changes still don't attribute the health problems of staffers or students to the school's indoor air quality. Arne Amaliksen, the school's business manager and a former chemist, told Teacher he would feel safe bringing his grandchildren into the school. School nurse Carol Bailey doubts that various maladies of staff members and students result from poor air quality in the school. "There are so many factors that you can't say it's all air-quality-related," Bailey maintained, citing other sources of stress, such as peer pressure and academic demands, that may take a toll on students' health.

Studying air pollution in schools is especially hard because the population changes on a regular basis. Health problems might be caused not only by other stresses but also by family stress, allergies to cleaning agents, or other illnesses.

SOURCE OF HELP

The EPA provides help for administrators in schools or other buildings that suspect indoor air-pollution problems. An EPA Indoor Air Quality Problem Solving Wheel, for example, helps users match symptoms of the problem with possible causes that a school system can investigate and correct.

In addition, an EPA document, "Sources of Information on Indoor Air Quality: IAQ in Schools," states that EPA studies of human exposure to indoor air pollutants "may be 2 to 5 times, and occasionally more than 100 times, higher than outdoor levels." Such levels are of particular concern because it is estimated that most people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors.

"Comparative risk studies performed by EPA and its Science Advisory Board," the document goes on, "have consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top four environmental risks to the public."

EDUCATORS' OPTIONS

So what can a teacher or administrator do about poor air quality in a school? Here are Sam Gutman's suggestions:

  • Learn as much as you can about indoor air quality.
  • Record colleagues' complaints about illnesses; look for patterns, such as significantly higher absenteeism in winter when buildings are closed up.
  • Be sure classrooms are tested for radon.
  • Be sure the school's ventilation filters are replaced at least four times each year.
  • Ask that the school district warn of possible side effects to pesticide and chemical use before spraying.
  • Be aware that pets in the classroom can trigger allergic reactions.
  • Be aware that new carpeting and wall fabric can contain formaldehyde.

And, overall, experts recommend working with parent groups on indoor air quality issues and joining with coworkers to approach the administration if there is a problem.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Indoor Air Quality in Schools
This resource from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities lists links, books, and journal articles addressing indoor air quality issues -- including building materials, maintenance practices, renovation procedures, and ventilation systems -- in school buildings.

Sources of Information on Indoor Air Quality: IAQ in Schools
Why indoor air quality (IAQ) is important to your school, plus sources of information on IAQ.

School Air Quality Survey for Students
A diary or log of symptoms correlated with time and place may prove helpful. This document includes some question excerpts from the Healthy Schools Networks survey.

Air Rights
Educators take action against indoor pollution. (Teacher Magazine, August 2002)

Indoor Air Quality and Student Performance
In five sections -- problem, cause, consequences, solution, and references -- this EPA document presents evidence that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can adversely affect student performance.

Indoor Air Quality and Student Performance
In five sections -- problem, cause, consequences, solution, and references -- this document presents evidence that poor indoor air quality can adversely affect student performance.

Something in the Air
This Teacher Magazine article discusses the problem of poor indoor air quality in U.S. schools. (May 1998)

School Air Quality
Fresh air is in short supply at many schools. (GenerationGreen.org)

Originally published 06/08/1998
Last updated 03/22/2010

 

 

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