Is It Time To Air Our Grievances?
It’s such a bittersweet time of year. Another summer over- the long sunny days, the freedom, the lazy mornings. There is a sadness in the realisation that there is a finite number of these summers that our children are happy to spend with us. I always ask myself, did I enjoy it enough? Did I make it a special one for my kids?
Oh but then the sweet! The routine, the peaceful house, the time to myself. Time to think!
I’m a pretty organised back-to-schooler. Books covered, stationary assembled, bags ready, uniforms complete, healthy lunch boxes filled. I like the planning and the organising, the choosing of the right after-school activities for each child. There is hope and anticipation involved. There is an expectation that my kids will have a successful year at school – that they will be happy, will learn, will be healthy.
And that makes me stop and think.
What kind of environment am I sending my kids into? Yes, I spent a lot of time choosing the right school for them- the right level of academics, the right ethos and the sports. But what about the right air quality in the building? The Environmental Protection Agency has highlighted the importance of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), pointing out that indoor levels of pollutants maybe two to five times – and occasionally more than 100 times – higher than outdoor levels so by rights, the IAQ in our schools should be a priority.
Over the years I have made adjustments and improvements to my home to make it a healthy home. By optimising the indoor air quality in our house, the kids are less likely to suffer from allergies and asthma attacks, from wheeze, respiratory infections, rashes, itchy eyes and skin.
But if my kids spend 6-8hours of every day in a school building with poor indoor air quality, what exactly are they likely to be breathing in?
The Air They Breathe- What’s in it when Indoor Air Quality is Poor?
- Dust and mold
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
- Bacteria and viruses
- Too much CO2
- Pollution from outside
Dust and mold
Both of these have collected in the empty building during the summer. Dust harbours dust mite, the most common trigger for asthma and allergies. Mold can cause health problems even in those with no asthma or allergies. Those beautifully coloured fallen leaves in the school yard don’t help either as they provide an ideal home for the growth of mold. ER departments experience their highest rate of asthma related problems in September due to a perfect storm of back to school, ragweed season and cold and flu season combining.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Building works are commonly carried out when the school is empty in the summer months and the materials used are very likely to emit harmful VOCs. New carpets and furniture are also culprits where VOCs are concerned. A fresh coat of paint can give students and teachers a boost but the strong fumes and nasty odours produced as the paint dries can irritate the eyes, skin and airways. Similarly, a clean school is a must for morale but what cleaning products are being used? Most contain chemicals that are harmful to our health.
Bacteria and viruses
Germs love schools – all those bodies in close contact, breathing the same air, touching the same surfaces and – shall we say – questionable hand hygiene. September is the start of the cold and flu season so its no wonder that our kids attendance dips at this time of year.
Too much CO2
Stuffy, poorly ventilated classrooms lead to increased levels of CO2 in class. Old school buildings were not planned to accommodate the larger numbers of students today meaning over-crowded classes and labs.
Pollution from outside
School buses and parents’ cars idling outside school buildings spew damaging exhaust fumes into the air. It has been shown that students exposed to more air pollution – like that in high traffic areas- have slower increases in cognitive function than students in areas of low air pollution.
How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Effect Our Children’s Health?
There are numerous consequences to being exposed to poor indoor air quality and children are more likely to experience these sequences because they breathe more rapidly and their vulnerable bodies are still growing and developing. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its Science Advisory Board have consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to health.
Among the health effects are:
- Fatigue, drowsiness
- Shortness of breath
- Sinus congestion
- Irritation of the eye, nose, throat and skin
- Aggravation of asthma and allergies
Poor indoor air quality can effect kids in different ways with some experiencing much worse symptoms than others, particularly if they have any underlying illness such as a weakened immune system, respiratory illness, heart problems, have chemical sensitivities or even something as simple as wearing contact lenses.
How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Effect Our Children’s Performance?
The health effects of poor indoor air quality impact both students and their teachers. Obviously, if our teachers performance is under par then our kids learning environment is directly affected.
Our kids’ ability to concentrate and to focus is decreased. It’s no surprise that when a child is uncomfortable their learning is disrupted and their potential reduced. Increased levels of CO2 and CO in classrooms has been directly linked to increased absenteeism. Building dampness and mold are associated with a marked increase in respiratory illnesses. When allergies and asthma are aggravated a child’s productivity deteriorates and school days can be missed, but more seriously can cause grave health issues.
And what about wellbeing? A feeling of contentment? I want my kids to think of school as a pleasant, fun place to be. I want them to be happy there. If the building they are spending so much time in is making them drowsy, headachy and ill then their sense of wellbeing is severely impacted. The health and wellbeing of the students has wider repercussions for the school itself of course – for the school’s reputation and the community’s trust and it could even spark liability problems.
How To Improve Indoor Air Quality in Schools
- Increase ventilation
- Lower VOCs
- HVAC maintenance
- Reduce dampness and mold
- Upgrade flooring
- Install carbon monoxide and radon detectors
- Use air purifiers
- Use healthier cleaning products
- Safe Storage
- Ban Idling
This may be as simple as opening the windows on good quality air days. Kids in well ventilated classrooms have been shown to do better in math and reading tests and have less absenteeism. Ventilation is especially important when using products that release harmful pollutants into the air. Its particularly important to ensure exhaust hoods in science labs and kitchens are appropriate and in good working order. Restrooms and shower areas need to have effective fans that are piped to the outdoors.
Lower Volatile Organic Compounds
Paints, flooring and new furniture should be selected carefully. The VOCs produced by drying paint can cause serious health problems and new floors and furniture can off-gas into the air for months. Certified paints and flooring are available and are proven to be healthier for all, not just children. These paints have less irritants and pollutants than others making them a wiser choice.
Adequate maintenance for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems can help reduce respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, cough, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Changing the filters regularly, according to the manufacturer’s instructions, is necessary for them to trap air pollutants and function efficiently.
Reduce Dampness and Mold
Humidifiers/dehumidifiers can keep humidity levels between the ideal of 40% and 50%. Controlling the moisture in schools can help reduce the risk of respiratory and asthma-related conditions.
Replacing carpet with smooth flooring which allows easier cleaning is recommended. Flooring certified to be asthma & allergy friendly® is a great choice for a healthy school. Flooring should be mopped or vacuumed rather than swept. School vacuum cleaners should have an effective HEPA to ensure even the smallest pollutants are captured. There are now CERTIFIED commercial vacuum cleaners available.
Install carbon monoxide and radon detectors
Carbon monoxide and radon can cause a wide range of respiratory problems, including heart disease and lung cancer so detectors should be installed.
Use air purifiers
Using an air purifier can help trap harmful airborne pollutants and keep them from being present in the air our kids are breathing. A certified air purifier that can remove common asthma triggers from the air can be especially helpful for children with asthma.
Use Healthier Cleaning Products
School buildings should be cleaned thoroughly, but excessive use of cleaning chemicals should be avoided.
Cleaning products and other chemicals should be stored in areas separate to the classrooms.
Banning idling of school buses and cars outside the building helps control exhaust emissions.
EPA studies have found that half of the schools in the U.S. have indoor air quality problems. That’s half of our children breathing in bad air for up to 1000 hours in every school year. This cannot be acceptable. It’s time to be proactive about our air and to inform ourselves of the problems and risks so that we can be part of the solution. As parents we want to do everything in our power to keep our kids happy and healthy so let’s involve ourselves with decisions involving the air quality of our schools.
We know that good indoor air quality contributes to a favorable environment for our kids, better performance of teachers and staff, and an overall sense of comfort, health and well-being and that this ultimately allows schools fulfil their primary goal of educating our children.
Medical & Lifestyle Author Dr Anna O’Donovan
About Dr. Anna O’Donovan – Medical & Lifestyle Author
Anna is a mum of three children, one with allergies, and she suffers from allergies and asthma herself. She is a qualified doctor and worked as a General Practitioner and as a dentist for a number of years. She is also an award-winning author.
Indoor air quality, healthier schools, volatile organic compounds, mold, ventilation, HEPA filter, air purifier, dust mite, asthma and allergies, health and wellbeing
References and further reading
Are You Sending Your Kids Back to School to Get Sick?, Click here
Tarkett’s commercial flooring CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly®, Click here
Sanitaire’s commercial upright vacuum cleaner CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly®, Click here
True Value Foundation, Painting a Brighter future, Click here
Why Indoor Air Quality is Important to Schools, EPA, Click here
Back to School Thought: Does Air Quality Matter for Students?, Molekule, Click here
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