Five days a week, more than 55 million children, teachers and employees spend the majority of their waking hours in U.S. school buildings. Besides being exposed to science, history and math, children and teachers are exposed to hundreds if not thousands of potentially hazardous chemicals and pollutants. The sources of these contaminants are numerous: cleaning products; building materials such as paints, adhesives and flooring; furniture and furnishings; molds and allergens; and the occupants themselves.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than half of the nation's schools have indoor air quality problems. Children are at much greater risk to develop health problems in these facilities; they are more susceptible than adults to pollutants, and they spend the majority of their time in school or at daycare facilities. Children breathe in proportionately more air than adults, and their growing bodies absorb chemicals more readily. This means indoor pollutants, especially volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pesticides and allergens, can more severely harm the health and well-being of children.
Exposure to unacceptable levels of these chemicals can trigger respiratory diseases such as asthma and allergies, as well as acute health effects such as headaches, coughs, nosebleeds and dizziness. More serious health problems, such as cancer or reproductive and developmental problems, also have been associated with long-term exposure to certain VOCs.
The poor indoor air quality in America's schools warrants a closer look at trends related to respiratory disease. Since the 1980s, asthma rates among children have been rising rapidly and are reaching alarming numbers. Recent studies show that one in 12 children has asthma — 8.7 percent (6.3 million children) in the year 2001 compared with 3.6 percent in 1980.
Researchers are still trying to determine the specific reasons for this increase, but exposure to specific allergens, volatile chemicals and strong odors are known to trigger asthma attacks. The most common environmental asthma triggers include dust mite allergens, cockroaches, mold and animal dander. Recent studies have implicated chemicals and VOCs as significant risk factors for asthma. Because children spend so much time in schools or daycare facilities, it is important to reduce exposure to environmental pollutants in these environments as much as possible.
A unique environment
More than other buildings, schools have unique characteristics that raise concerns about indoor air quality. A typical school can have four times as many occupants as an office building for the same amount of floor space. New classrooms may be built, or classrooms may be divided without considering changes to the ventilation system. Schools are usually strapped for funds, which means there is insufficient money for adequate system maintenance. Additionally, many different types of activities — science experiments, art classes, auto repair, photography and wood shops — may contribute pollutants to the indoor air.
Education institutions can address the concerns of their staff and constituents by focusing attention on the indoor environment. Good indoor air quality fosters excellence in academic performance and communicates a school's dedication to its staff and students. Responsible indoor air quality management and purchasing guidelines benefit schools by communicating environmental and social responsibility to their students, parents and staff.
Specifying low-emitting products can be a daunting task; understanding VOC-emission test reports seems to require an advanced chemistry degree. Third-party certification and labeling programs can help purchasing professionals choose wisely.
Facility managers and school administrators can take many steps to protect and improve indoor air quality in their facilities. Basically, two factors must be considered: ventilation and source control. Ventilation is a critical part of good indoor air quality management. Proper ventilation helps flush out chemical pollutants and improve indoor air quality by adequately supplying clean air to the building. Both source control and ventilation need to be part of diligent indoor air quality management. It should be noted, though, that ventilation merely addresses the symptoms of indoor air pollution; source control eliminates the cause. It is essential for facility managers to make adequate source control measures a central part of their planning and processes.
Virtually every product and material used in buildings releases VOCs, many of which are harmful. It is widely known that paint releases high amounts of VOCs as it is applied and dries; it is important to realize that products such as furniture, flooring or ceiling systems can release chemicals to the indoor environment over much longer periods of time. School facility professionals must use products and materials that have minimal impact on indoor air quality without neglecting all other demands and requirements.
Source control is the most effective method to achieve and maintain healthful indoor environments. Since the late 1980s, the EPA has promoted source control as a means of controlling indoor air pollution. In 1993, the agency held its first workshop to identify key sources of indoor product emissions. This opportunity was used to start a dialogue with industries on ways to reduce product emissions. Key products identified as sources of indoor pollution include furniture, flooring, paints and coatings, adhesives and sealants, cleaning agents, wallcoverings, office equipment, wood products and insulations. Sustainable-building programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program and the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) have adopted source control as a means to create high-quality indoor environments throughout the design, building and maintenance processes.
Just a few years ago, finding such low-emitting products and materials was a major undertaking. Now it has become easier to find and specify third-party-certified, low-emitting products and materials. Many manufacturers have tested, improved and certified their standard products to meet indoor air quality criteria.
Children and teachers have a right to good indoor air quality and a built environment that will not harm their health or well-being. Today, good indoor air quality can be achieved without compromising functionality or individual design preferences and at virtually no additional cost or effort.
Bloech is the director of communications for the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, Atlanta, a non-profit organization that oversees the GREENGUARD Certification Program. It is an independent testing program for low-emitting products and materials.
Percentage of children that had asthma, 1980.
Percentage of children that had asthma, 2001.
An invaluable resource
The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute has created a new standard and product certification for low-emitting products and materials for use in school facilities. The GREENGUARD Certification for Children & Schools is an extension of the established GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certification Program.
The new standard takes into consideration the sensitive nature of school populations and the unique building characteristics and maintenance conditions found in schools, and presents the most rigorous product emissions criteria to date.
For more information on the Certification for Children & Schools, visit the website at www.greenguard.org.