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A key strategy in making sure that classrooms and other school spaces have good air quality is choosing flooring materials with low emissions of volatile organic compounds.

Air it out before you step on it

Oct. 3, 2022
To make sure classrooms and other school spaces have good air quality, Choose flooring materials with low emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Coping with the disruptive effects of Covid-19 has underlined for educational facility managers the importance of indoor air quality to the health and safety of students and staff.

A key strategy in making sure that classrooms and other school spaces have good air quality is choosing flooring materials with low emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

"Interior building materials — including carpets, carpet padding, paints, sealants and caulking, adhesives, floor and ceiling tiles, cabinets, molding, composite wood products, and other wood work — can contain contaminants that are gradually emitted (off-gassed) throughout the life of the material," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.

The EPA says failure to address indoor air quality deficiencies in schools may increase long- and short-term health effects for students and staff, such as coughing, eye irritation, headaches, allergic reactions, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Minimizing VOCs

Carpeting and resilient flooring are popular choices for school facilities. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but both types of flooring will off-gas VOCs after being installed.

“These emissions can be significantly reduced, although not completely eliminated, in the first 72 hours through the use of proper ventilation techniques,” the EPA says.

Two recommended techniques are an air out and a flush out.

An air out removes materials that produce objectionable emissions from packaging and unrolls or spaces them apart in a well-ventilated warehouse so that fresh air can easily flow in and around the materials.

“Because the products are being aired out in a well-ventilated warehouse, the pollutants are not emitted within the school building, thus reducing the chances that the pollutants will be adsorbed onto other building materials or finishes, or that occupants will be affected,” the EPA says.

A flush out is when large amounts of outdoor air are forced through a recently completed building for a period of three to 90 days to remove the majority of pollutant emissions from building materials, finishes, and furnishings. The recommended minimum volume of outdoor air needed for flush out is the amount needed to ventilate the full school at least once each hour (1 ACH, or air change per hour), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

The EPA recommends these strategies for deciding which flooring materials to install in school spaces;

  • Prioritize sensitive program areas. Identify and prioritize spaces where material selection is of particular concern based on the function of the space, such as a nurses' office, and special education classrooms.
  • Use product consensus standards when possible. Select products based on available consensus standards (developed by government agencies, environmental certification services, or trade organizations) that address health and toxicity issues relating to specific material types.
  • Develop specification criteria. Facility planners should provide specification criteria for appropriate materials and installation methods. Incorporate specifications into design and construction documents.
  • Obtain Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) or manufacturer certifications. For materials that are deemed critical to a project and for which standards or other references do not exist, obtain and review safety data sheets and manufacturers' certifications or test data. Contact manufacturers for clarification as needed. A review by experienced indoor air quality professionals may be justified for particularly critical materials or sensitive spaces.
  • Require field approval for product substitutions. Review and approve contractor requests for product substitutions to ensure that the indoor air quality criteria defined in the specifications have not been compromised. Require justification from contractors for substitutions that do not meet environmental performance criteria.

But schools should not prohibit substitutions, the EPA says.

“Specialized subcontractors can be an excellent source of information about new and improved product alternatives,” the agency says. “The approval process for substitutions should be clearly spelled out and should require specific product ingredient information, as well as information about any adhesives, solvents or other materials that might be used during installation or maintenance.”

Another key to prevent flooring from creating air quality problems is keeping the floors clean and well maintained.

“Regular and effective cleaning and maintenance is essential to keep the floor covering dry and clean,” the EPA says. “Designers should explicitly consider cleaning and maintenance issues when specifying floor finishes for various uses in schools.”

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