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Children in classroom
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Tips to manage asthma and allergies at school

School buildings are often havens for asthma and allergy triggers, and children are particularly vulnerable to these harmful pollutants. Learn why Indoor Air Quality should be emphasized given that children spend an average of 200 days per year in school.

If you are the parent of a child with asthma or allergies, you know how difficult it can be to manage triggers outside of your home. 

School buildings are often havens for asthma and allergy triggers. Children are particularly vulnerable to these harmful pollutants. Given that children in developed nations spend an average of 200 days per year in school buildings, emphasis on school Indoor Air Quality should be a front-and-center issue. 

“September asthma peak” is a trend that lands more people – especially children – in the hospital for asthma attacks in Sept. than any other month.

Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that it is common for indoor pollution levels in classrooms to be two to five times higher than outside. 

Sources of poor Indoor Air Quality in schools

There are several sources of air pollution in schools. These sources can differ depending on the age of the school building.

Newer school buildings tend to be tightly sealed and lack sufficient ventilation. 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 mold caused by leaky roofs and dust from crumbling walls.

Many schools, whether in new or old buildings, are located dangerously close to heavily trafficked roads and freeways. Particulate matter from vehicles, especially diesel exhaust, pose a threat to children's health.

Other airborne pollutant sources include chemicals in cleaning products and pesticides used in and around school buildings.1

Animal-free doesn’t mean animal allergen-free

Numerous studies have shown that animal allergens can be present in environments where there are no animals. Studies have also demonstrated that allergen levels in schools where no pets are present can be even higher than in homes with pets. This is particularly problematic for sensitized children who do not have pets at home.

Allergen levels in schools where no pets are present can be even higher than in homes with pets.

There is strong evidence that clothing is the primary way pet allergens travel. Human hair can also transport pet allergens among schoolchildren.2

Dust mite allergens in schools

Dust mites are close relatives of ticks and spiders. They thrive in and on mattresses, bedding, upholstered furniture, carpets, drapes and curtains. Dust mite droppings and their decomposing bodies are a major allergen affecting allergy and asthma sufferers.

Dust mite allergens are present in many schools and daycare facilities.

Studies show that dust mite allergens are present in many schools and daycare facilities. Reported levels are often similar or slightly lower than in corresponding local homes. Carpeting and upholstered furnishings are important reservoirs and sources of exposure in schools and daycare centers, particularly in humid regions. Learn more about dust mite allergens here.

Cockroach and rodent allergens in schools

Cockroach and rodent allergens are commonly detected in inner-city and rural schools. Studies of U.S. schools found detectable levels of cockroach allergen in 71 percent of vacuumed dust samples from classrooms.3

A study found mice allergens in 99.5 percent of school samples.

Another study found mice allergens in 99.5 percent of school samples. Children exposed to mouse allergens in schools experienced more asthma symptoms and lower lung function after adjusting for variation in exposures at home. 

Airborne cockroach and mouse allergens are also found in airborne samples. Not surprisingly, the highest levels of these allergens are usually where there is food.4

Dustless chalk can trigger milk allergies?

Chalk dust is a common classroom allergen and asthma trigger. Rightfully, many school teachers are now opting for dustless chalk. 

Casein is a milk protein often used in low-powder chalk. Milk-allergic children who inhale particles with casein can suffer asthma attacks and other respiratory.5 

Traffic-related air pollution

In the U.S. alone, almost 8,000 public schools are within 500 feet of highways, truck routes and other traffic-heavy roads.6

Vehicle exhaust is the largest source of traffic-related air pollution. Other sources include dust from brakes, tires and the road surface. Particulate matter (including ultrafine particles), nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the most common traffic pollutants. Carcinogenic VOCs  in traffic-related air pollution include formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and benzene.

How parents can help at school

Questions parents can ask their school administrators include:

  1. Are the HVAC systems being properly inspected and maintained?
  2. Are there regular moisture and mold inspections?
  3. Is dust being removed daily with a damp cloth?
  4. Is the school being vacuumed using a HEPA filter daily?
  5. Are the cleaning products used safe?
  6. Are the building materials and furniture releasing harmful chemicals?
  7. Is food being properly stored? 
  8. Is an optimal humidity level (around 40%) being maintained?

Parents should visit their child's school to find out what trigger sources are present. Parents can also talk to the school about what they can do to limit allergens, such as keeping windows shut on high pollen days or limiting carpets in the classroom.

Suggest a classroom project to identify trigger sources.

Parents can also suggest a classroom project to identify trigger sources. It’s a great way to get students involved in recognizing what contributes to good Indoor Air Quality.

Other steps parents can take

  • Before school starts, schedule an appointment with your child’s physician or board-certified allergist.
  • If you don’t have an allergist, use the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology's Find an Allergist tool to find one in your area at http://acaai.org/locate-an-allergist. 
  • Have a fully documented asthma plan: Develop your child’s plan with the physician or board-certified allergist. Each plan is specific to each child.
  • Never rely on home remedies for allergies and asthma, unless your doctor says it’s okay.
  • If your child’s asthma is severe, ensure there’s a peak flow meter available. Be sure your child and the school staff are comfortable using it. 
  • Ensure there’s an up-to-date rescue albuterol inhaler at the school.
  • If your child has exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), let the school know they need to use their albuterol inhaler before exercise. 
  • Download an Air Quality Index app and track local air quality.
  • Consider getting an air quality monitor, such as the AirVisual Pro, for your child’s classroom. Connect it to the school’s Wi-Fi and check the air quality from your smart or desktop.

Although you can’t completely control allergens and asthma triggers outside your home, you can steps to keep your child as safe as possible.

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