Because of rising asthma numbers teachers and cleaning staff should make sure that classrooms are ventilated adequately and dusted regularly

Because of rising asthma numbers, teachers and cleaning staff should make sure that classrooms are ventilated adequately and dusted regularly.

Healthful and Sensible School Maintenance (with Related Video)

Schools have many ways to incorporate maintenance steps that result in a more healthful learning environment.

The school year is back in full swing for millions of students across the nation trying to remember the names of their new teachers, what time lunch is served, and how to navigate the hallways and stairwells to get from one classroom to the next.

Meanwhile, those responsible for keeping those education facilities clean, safe and well-maintained have to be vigilant to remove or minimize the numerous potential health and safety hazards that may be lurking in those classrooms and corridors, especially if workers haven't adopted effective procedures for cleaning and maintaining schools.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a guide, "Sensible Steps to Healthier School Environments," to help custodial and maintenance workers ward off potential facility problems and provide a safe and healthful education facility.

"Healthier school environments enable children to learn and produce more in the classroom, which can improve their performance and achievements later in life," the guide states.

Some of the suggested steps for monitoring and improving the school environment:

  • Asbestos. Federal law requires schools to inspect their facilities for building material that contains asbestos, and establish management plans to prevent or minimize hazards related to the material. The guide recommends that schools review their management plans with all building operations and management staff so that they better understand how to minimize potential disturbance of asbestos-containing material.

    Workers also should make sure they do not cut, scrape, gouge, drill or physically disturb material that contains asbestos. They should let their supervisors know immediately if they have concerns that asbestos-containing material has sustained damage or is deteriorating.

  • Asthma. Schools should switch to environmentally friendly cleaning products, which are less likely to have strong chemical odors that can trigger or exacerbate asthma symptoms. Teachers and cleaning staff should make sure that classrooms are ventilated adequately and dusted regularly. Items that tend to attract dust should be washed frequently.

  • Carbon monoxide. To ensure that gas-burning appliances, such as stoves, furnaces and water heaters, are working properly and ventilated to the outside, schools should conduct yearly inspections. Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed near equipment that burns natural gas, oil, wood or gas.

  • Chemical management. Toxic or hazardous chemicals should be stored in appropriate containers in a ventilated, fire-resistant, locked area or cabinet. Workers should label containers with the name of the material and when it entered the school facility. A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)for each product should be readily available in a binder near the chemical storage area.

    The maintenance staff should examine a school's chemical inventory on a regular basis and remove chemicals that pose a health, safety or environmental risk, or that are unnecessary or outdated. Schools should ensure that proper training is provided to staff members involved with chemical management and to students using toxic or hazardous chemicals.

  • Indoor air quality. Workers should regularly check building ventilation systems to make sure they are working properly. A school should establish a schedule for maintaining unit ventilators, replacing air filters, and cleaning supply air diffusers, return registers and outside air intakes. Condensate pans need to be kept clean, unobstructed and properly drained. Unit ventilators should be kept clear of books, papers and other items that can obstruct air flow.

    To help schools make sure that air quality issues are being monitored and addressed properly, the EPA recommends that schools should establish a management program such as the agency's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program.

  • Lead. If a school was constructed before 1978, there's a good chance it contains lead paint, the EPA says. Deteriorating lead paint can expose students and staff to lead poisoning. To reduce such exposure, maintenance workers should examine interior walls and surfaces for paint that is cracking, chipping or peeling. Areas on doors or windows where painted surfaces rub together also should be checked. Workers also should check exterior areas for flaking paint and make sure it is not contaminating nearby soil where students might play.

More steps for improving the school environment

  • Mold and moisture control. The maintenance staff should keep indoor humidity below 60 percent (ideally between 30 and 50 percent). Workers should check regularly for condensation on wet spots in the facility. Wet or damp spots in a school should be cleaned and dried within 48 hours. Plumbing and roof leaks need to be repaired as soon as possible. Mold found on hard surfaces should be scrubbed off with water and detergent, and dried completely.

  • PCBs. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used in caulking, electronics and fluorescent ballasts, but in 1979 were determined to be health and environmental hazards, and the EPA banned commercial production of the chemicals. Many schools still have fixtures and materials that contain PCBs.

    To minimize exposure to PCBs in schools, workers should clean frequently with a damp cloth or mop to reduce dust. Vacuuming should be done with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. Schools should consider having the air inside the facility tested for PCBs, and if elevated levels are detected, take steps to identify the source of the chemical.

    School workers should not try to remove PCB-containing material on their own, the EPA cautions. "PCBs should be removed by personnel wearing protective equipment," the guide says.

  • Pest management. Schools should install high-density door sweeps on all doors to keep mice, rats and roaches from getting into the facility, the EPA states. Spaces around utility pipes entering a building should be blocked with copper mesh wire. All windows should have screens, especially if they are opened during warm months.

    Custodians should clean and mop floors every day in food-service areas and classrooms. Food items should be stored in sealable containers. Garbage should be bagged and completely closed and taken daily to waste bins outside the school building.

  • Water. School districts should regularly test the drinking water in their facilities, especially if a school gets its water from its own water source. "Water from public water supply systems is regularly tested to ensure it meets federal and state drinking water standards," the EPA says. "School administrators of on-site well water systems are responsible for making sure the water is safe."

  • Lead. If a school was constructed before 1978, there's a good chance it contains lead paint, the EPA says. Deteriorating lead paint can expose students and staff to lead poisoning. To reduce such exposure, maintenance workers should examine interior walls and surfaces for paint that is cracking, chipping or peeling. Areas on doors or windows where painted surfaces rub together also should be checked. Workers also should check exterior areas for flaking paint and make sure it is not contaminating nearby soil where students might play.

  • Mold and moisture control. The maintenance staff should keep indoor humidity below 60 percent (ideally between 30 and 50 percent). Workers should check regularly for condensation on wet spots in the facility. Wet or damp spots in a school should be cleaned and dried within 48 hours. Plumbing and roof leaks need to be repaired as soon as possible. Mold found on hard surfaces should be scrubbed off with water and detergent, and dried completely.

  • PCBs. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used in caulking, electronics and fluorescent ballasts, but in 1979 were determined to be health and environmental hazards, and the EPA banned commercial production of the chemicals. Many schools still have fixtures and materials that contain PCBs.

    To minimize exposure to PCBs in schools, workers should clean frequently with a damp cloth or mop to reduce dust. Vacuuming should be done with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. Schools should consider having the air inside the facility tested for PCBs, and if elevated levels are detected, take steps to identify the source of the chemical.

    School workers should not try to remove PCB-containing material on their own, the EPA cautions. "PCBs should be removed by personnel wearing protective equipment," the guide says.

  • Pest management. Schools should install high-density door sweeps on all doors to keep mice, rats and roaches from getting into the facility, the EPA states. Spaces around utility pipes entering a building should be blocked with copper mesh wire. All windows should have screens, especially if they are opened during warm months.

    Custodians should clean and mop floors every day in food-service areas and classrooms. Food items should be stored in sealable containers. Garbage should be bagged and completely closed and taken daily to waste bins outside the school building.

Rising Asthma Numbers

Effective cleaning and maintenance practices in school facilities can help reduce the conditions that might trigger asthma attacks in students or staff. Following those practices has become more important for schools as the most recent numbers show that the incidence of asthma has grown in the last decade.

A May 2012 data brief from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics states that the percentage of people who have ever been diagnosed with asthma and still have asthma has increased from 7.3 percent of the population in 2001 to 8.4 percent of the population in 2010. That translates to 25.7 million people in the United States with asthma.

For the school-age population, asthma is even more prevalent. In 2010, 9.5 percent of those 17 years old or younger had been diagnosed with the disease. The CDC estimates that asthma is responsible for more than 14 million school day absences per year.

Asthma also is more common among lower-income populations. Of those with incomes less than 100 percent of the poverty level, the prevalence of asthma was 11.2 percent in 2010. For those with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty level, the percentage was 8.7 percent; among those with income greater than 200 percent of the poverty level, the prevalence of asthma was 7.3 percent.

Effective school cleaning can eliminate items that can trigger asthma attacks — pollen, animal dander, dust mites, mold, pesticides and chalk dust, among others.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Related Video

Watch this video to learn more about asthma in schools.

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