Every year, children spend an average of 1,300 hours in school buildings, where teachers, administrators and other school personnel will concentrate on helping them learn and grow. That means more than just developing curriculum. It also means making sure their schools provide a safe, healthy environment.
Over the last few years, issues that affect the health of our schoolchildren such as nutrition and exercise have been receiving a great deal of focus. Unfortunately another matter that has a tremendous impact on a student’s ability to succeed has been largely overlooked — Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). In order to be successful, students must have clean, healthy air to breathe. Not only can poor IAQ cause illnesses that keep them home from school, but recent findings have also shown that it may directly reduce their ability to learn.
Clean air is crucial for student success
Children are particularly vulnerable to harmful and irritating air contaminants such as microbiological pollutants, allergens, chemicals and ultrafine particles. Their lung development is directly affected by air pollution. Exposure to polluted air during these developing years has been associated to decreased respiratory function later in life. Increasing reports of asthma among school age children have been directly linked to elevated air pollution exposure. In fact, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, respiratory illnesses are the most common cause of absenteeism, with asthma-related illnesses accounting for more than 14 million missed school days every year alone.
Studies have also associated poor Indoor Air Quality with a decrease in students’ ability to perform specific mental tasks requiring concentration, calculation and memory. There is also mounting evidence that poor IAQ can cause verbal, perceptual, motor, and behavioral disabilities in children. It can also cause hearing impairment, irritability and developmental delays.
Pollution comes from a variety of sources
There are several sources of air pollution in schools. In newer schools, the trend toward tightly sealed buildings with a lack of natural ventilation is one factor. The use of synthetic building materials and furniture that off-gas chemicals, such as formaldehyde, is also a problem. Issues in older schools range from lead, asbestos and radon contamination, to mould caused by leaky roofs and dust from crumbling walls. In classrooms both old and new, a lack of funding has many schools turning off their HVAC systems or failing to properly maintain them. Meanwhile, outdoor pollutants such as vehicle exhaust, pesticides and factory emissions can make their way inside, making what is already a polluted environment even worse. In fact, studies have shown that it is common for indoor pollution levels in classrooms to be two to five times higher than outside. Also, the location of many schools close to major roads, rail yards and other pollutions sources, can make them account for a major part of a child’s air pollution exposure.
Taking action to affect change
Parents can take action to make sure their children are breathing clean, healthy air in every classroom. These are some questions parents should be asking the administration at their children’s schools:
- Is the school inspecting and maintaining their HVAC systems regularly?
- Are there routine inspections for moisture and mound? Have they established prevention and remediation plans?
- Is the maintenance staff cleaning and removing dust with a damp cloth and vacuuming using high-efficiency (HEPA) filters daily?
- Is the school choosing safe cleaning products, building materials and furniture that do not release harmful chemicals?
- Is the district conducting regular building inspections and developing management plans for pollution sources?
IQAir is a Swiss-based air quality technology company that since 1963 empowers individuals, organizations and communities to breathe cleaner air through information, collaboration and technology solutions.