SAN FRANCISCO Increasing indoor air pollution is posing new risks to students and faculty, but a new program is helping to curb the harmful effects indoor air exposure can have on those teaching and learning in the classrooms.
Tools for Schools is a nationwide effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in conjunction with the American Lung Association (ALA) and national school organizations, to assist school faculty and maintenance personnel of the nations 85,000 public and 25,000 private schools in preventing and, where needed, repairing indoor air quality problems.
The program gives information to school administrators, teachers and nurses, providing checklists for things like how to handle second-hand tobacco smoke, disposing of combustible products like aerosol cans, properly storing volatile organic compounds, controlling the amount of airborne lead and mercury particles, maintaining up-to-date student health records and ridding the school of two long-term risks to the health and safety of faculty and students alike: asbestos and radon gas.
"Most people are aware that outdoor air pollution can damage their health, but many dont realize that indoor air pollution can have just as harmful effects," said Bob Thompson, environmental engineer for the EPA and creator of the Tools for Schools program. "The goal of the [program] is to provide clear and easily applied activities that administrators, teachers and others can use to help prevent indoor air quality problems and resolve them promptly if any do arise."
According to a federal study, 28,100 schools housing some 15.5 million students have less-than-adequate heating ventilation and air conditioning systems. Thirty-six thousand schools with 19.9 million students suffer from unsatisfactory ventilation.
More than 53 million students attend public and private elementary and secondary schools. In total, approximately 2.3 million teachers, 126,000 administrators and 60,000 staff are employed to educate the nations children from kindergarten through high school. This adds up to 1:5 Americans occupying a school building each day. This population is at risk for infectious diseases like influenza, chronic conditions like asthma and various other maladies connected with poor indoor air quality, said Thompson.
Over the past several decades, exposure of students and faculty to indoor air pollutants has increased due to the construction of tightly sealed buildings (reducing ventilation to save energy and money); the use of synthetic building materials and furniture; and the use of chemically formulated personal care products, pesticides and housekeeping supplies.
In the early 1970s, the country was faced with an oil embargo that effectively paralyzed all facets of industry. In an attempt to be less dependent on foreign sources of energy, building standards and code organizations set about creating guidelines to make the countrys buildings more energy efficient. While on the whole a good idea, not much thought was given to the impact the sealed atmospheres would have on the people forced to work in them on a daily basis.
Since that time, EPA studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor levels of pollutants can be two to five times, and occasionally 100 times higher, than outdoor air pollution levels. These levels of indoor pollution are significant because it is estimated that most people spend about 90% of their time indoors.
"By sealing the buildings to make them more energy efficient, yes, youre saving money on energy costs, but in the long run the money saved is lost on student and teacher sick days that can cut into a schools productivity," said Bruce Snead, an instructor in the engineering department at Kansas State University and a Tools for Schools coordinator in the Midwest.
Tools for Schools will help reduce indoor air quality problems that most schools have, but if disrepair is beyond a certain point, major funding for repairs and capital improvements may be required. Tools for Schools can keep a school from reaching that point, said Mark Bishop, program associate for the ALA of Eastern Missouri.
"Tools for Schools is preventative medicine," he said. "If the school has a major disease, its going to need some serious medical attention. This program can be applied to the majority of schools out there right now."
Bishop said some inexpensive ways for schools to manage indoor air pollution would be to prohibit school buses from idling near outdoor air intakes, not placing garbage bags in rooms containing heating ventilation and air conditioning equipment (HVAC), banning smoking within the school, using less toxic art materials, immediately cleaning even lightly used areas of the cafeteria of all stray food and crumbs, and, above all, watching for students and faculty exhibiting signs of nausea, dizziness and malaise.
Currently, there are several types of ventilation systems used in the nations schools: unit ventilators that take in outdoor air and filter it through a central exhaust fan located on the roof; an exhaust-only system that draws in outdoor air through loose windows and other openings; and a central air handling system that circulates filtered air into various ducts running throughout the building.
Snead said the ventilation systems now in use were designed and built according to standards and guidelines that applied to the period in which they were installed. Also, the guidelines of the 1970s, following on the heels of the energy crisis, reduced the number of cubic feet of fresh air to be delivered to people inside buildings. The goal was energy efficiency, but what it produced was poor air quality.
"Some were misguided in their efforts and thought they could simply shut off the outdoor air from people inside," Snead said. "What studies are finding now is not only has the quality of air suffered, but the quality of peoples work lives has suffered, as well."
Though Snead said there is no one ventilation system that is superior, the demands put on them have increased dramatically over the years. For example, some schools have had several additions put on them that, in many cases, contain different air circulating systems that pre-date one another. Interaction of these systems tends to lead to problems air flow imbalances in sections of the building creating pressure pockets, air delivery problems to classrooms and offices, as well as re-circulation of bad air.
"If you look at the causes of poor air quality in schools, the issue is inadequate fresh air ventilation," said Snead. "The systems have been known to work one against the other. For example, you may have bad air running out of the boiler room into a classroom, or exhaust fans from the kitchen back-drafting into the gym ... its a worst case scenario but it can happen."
Snead said it is also important for schools to be aware of what kind of building materials go into renovations or additions to their buildings. For example, engineered lumber products like plywood and particle board, if not allowed to air out can give off formaldehyde fumes. Quarry stone can also hold moisture and provide a medium for mold if not cleaned or applied properly during construction.
But the concerns of indoor air quality are not new to schools. Nineteenth century schools were built with a lot of windows, not so much for light, but to dilute the various infectious agents brought in by students. In the days before antibiotics, various epidemics among cloistered groups like schoolchildren were numerous and sometimes deadly.
Although times have changed, the concept has remained the same.
"As you can see, there was no big lightning bolt from the sky that made us aware of the importance of indoor air; it was knowledge that accumulated over time," Thompson said. "The Tools for Schools program is an old idea whose time has come."
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