Health Wise

Sept. 1, 2009
Improved indoor environmental quality and school maintenance can pay dividends in higher grades and healthier, happier students and staff.

Good indoor environmental quality (IEQ) is an important component for improving the productivity of students, teachers and support staff. It is crucial for a sense of health and well-being.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), almost 20 percent of the population of the United States spends a significant portion of the day in one of the nation's more than 120,000 public and private K-12 schools. About 55 million children occupy elementary and secondary schools, and another 6 million adults fill various teaching, administrative and support functions.

One factor that makes schools such an important focus for environmental improvements is that children are more sensitive than adults to exposure. As such, the overall indoor environmental quality has a significant influence on student attendance and performance. Studies have shown that poor indoor air quality results in more illness, absenteeism and asthma attacks. Because many schools receive funding based on daily attendance, any rise in illness and absenteeism can mean less funding.

A student whose asthma is not being controlled in school is distracted from learning, and an entire class can be affected when teachers must attend to the physical well-being of the child. Asthma-related problems are estimated to be responsible for 14.7 million missed school days every year and affect one in 13 children of school age. Typical asthma triggers include mold, dust mites, insect body parts and some chemicals.

Old vs. new

To some it may seem that old school buildings are the biggest problem. A federal study found that in 1998, the average school building in the United States was 42 years old — with more than a quarter of these buildings having been built prior to 1950. Older buildings, especially those that have been maintained poorly, can have environmental problems — but so can newer buildings. The selection, use and maintenance of building materials and furnishings also can affect the indoor environment.

In its publication “Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says: “Some moisture problems in buildings have been linked to changes in building construction practices during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Some of these changes have resulted in buildings that are tightly sealed, but may lack adequate ventilation, potentially leading to moisture buildup.”

Even occupants of new buildings can experience adverse effects from elevated levels of chemicals emitted from products used during construction or building maintenance. Those that do not react overtly still may suffer from a reduction in learning, because concentration and the ability to calculate and memorize suffer.

Making a plan

The indoor environmental quality of a school is essential for improving the educational setting. The EPA's “Tools for Schools” helps increase awareness about the importance of indoor environmental quality. Using this voluntary program, various departments in education institutions can undergo a self-evaluation that identifies which environmental problems exist and how to address them.

Some improvements are as simple and inexpensive as scheduling certain maintenance activities at times when students and faculty aren't present. Some work can be scheduled during the summer or over a weekend when an increased ventilation rate can help remove the off-gassing of volatile chemicals that can cause discomfort.

One example of the success of the EPA's program is Little Harbour School in New Hampshire. Just five months after beginning the program, the staff documented a 25 percent decrease in the number of times students visited the school nurse, along with an overall decrease in student absence and the incidence of bronchitis in the school staff. These results largely were achieved by making low-cost changes such as improving the ventilation, switching to low-VOC cleaning products and changing the timing of maintenance activities.

Carpet's role

Indoor carpeting has been cited as presenting problems for indoor environmental quality — but further research indicates the way the carpet is maintained is more of a factor than its presence or absence. One blind study of office workers used a soiled 20-year-old carpet on a concealed rack that could be wheeled in and out of a room without occupants being aware of its presence. This study demonstrated that occupants suffered more headaches and a 2 to 6 percent decrease in motor skills, memory, mathematics and logic when the concealed carpet was present. Increasing the ventilation rate of the air-handling system resulted in a significant improvement in occupant performance. (Wargocki 1999, 2000)

On the other hand, studies conducted by the Carpet and Rug Institute have shown that the use of properly maintained carpet improves air quality by reducing the levels of airborne particles. The Burlington (Vt.) School District made a number of changes, including the purchase of high-efficiency vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters for use during the routine maintenance of its carpets. Within the first year of carrying out this change, the annual absentee rate among asthmatic students dropped from an average of 31 days to just two days.

Various organizations have made recommendations to help schools select, install and maintain carpeting. The Carpet and Rug Institute recommends purchasing carpeting that complies with its Green Label Plus program. To qualify, new carpets must meet specifications for low VOC emissions.

Health Canada has recommended evaluating carpet before it is purchased to be sure it can be maintained and cleaned easily. The group suggests airing out new carpet before it is installed and using low-VOC adhesives when it is glued to the floor. It also suggests replacing carpet when school is out and that “extra exhaust ventilation should continue for a minimum of 72 hours after installation.” Furthermore, carpet shouldn't be installed “near water fountains, sinks, showers, pools or other locations where it may get wet.” If carpet does get wet “extract the moisture and be sure the carpet is dry within 24 hours.”

The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) has published a “Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Carpet Cleaning (S100).” An updated edition of the standard is scheduled for publication this year. This standard describes the procedures, methods and systems to be followed when performing professional commercial and residential textile floor covering (carpet and rugs) maintenance and cleaning. Providing well-maintained carpet contributes to improved indoor environmental quality.

Holland, REA, CR, WLS, is president of RestCon Environmental, Sacramento, Calif., a division of Restoration Consultants, Inc. He has been in the cleaning and restoration industry for more than 35 years and can be reached at (916) 736-1100.


In millions, number of people in the United States affected by seasonal allergies.

Source: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

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