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Breathing in Comfort

Breathing in Comfort

“Eighty percent of success is showing up,” according to a famous quote attributed to Woody Allen. Educators and administrators may quibble over the precise number, but it's undeniable that showing up at school is critical to a student's success. Students with prolonged or chronic absences from the classroom are likely to fall behind in their studies, and schools with high absentee rates risk the erosion of badly needed funding.

That's why it's vital for school and university learning spaces to be environments that do not jeopardize the health of students and staff members. Education institutions need to ensure that their facilities are built and maintained properly so the quality of the air does not detract from a student's ability to learn.

Sick buildings

About 14.7 million times a year, students don't show up at school because of asthma. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the lung disease is the leading cause of school absenteeism. Many of the thousands of school facilities in the United States have environmental conditions that can cause students' asthma symptoms to manifest — conditions such as the presence of cockroaches or other pests, animal dander, dust mites and secondhand smoke. In addition, other items — cleaning materials, perfumes and sprays — may affect a child's asthma.

A building with poor indoor air quality can lead to other health problems for occupants. The so-called “sick building syndrome” occurs when those who spend time in a building experience health problems that cannot be identified as a specific illness. According to the National Safety Council, symptoms frequently associated with sick building syndrome are headaches; eye, nose and throat irritation; a dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and sensitivity to odors.

The presence of pollutants and other contaminants, as well as poor ventilation, are some of the conditions that are commonly blamed for sick building syndrome, the council says. Schools that are near high-traffic areas or have buses idling their diesel engines next to school doorways, windows and air intakes may have pollutants drawn into their interior spaces. Volatile organic compounds that are found extensively in building materials and supplies can be released into the air and worsen the environmental quality.

Manage the mold

Mold is one of the most common indoor air quality problems to plague education facilities. It can grow on wood, carpet, insulation and other items. To prevent mold growth, one has to control moisture levels. School facilities, especially those that have fallen behind on routine maintenance, are susceptible to letting moisture enter unchecked.

Leaky roofs, doors and windows, poor drainage, dampness left behind after a carpet cleaning, and high summer humidity are factors that can result in too much moisture in a school. The EPA's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program identifies several areas where mold growth may occur: on roof materials above ceilings; around windows; near water fountains; on walls or ceiling tiles; on hidden surfaces such as the back side of dry walls or wall coverings; around bathroom tiles; in books and carpeting; and inside ductwork and cooling coil drip pans.

The EPA suggests the following ways to combat and prevent mold growth:

  • Conduct maintenance as scheduled, and perform regular building inspections for mold and moisture.

  • Make sure that the school maintenance staff is alerted immediately about water leaks and moisture problems.

  • Damp or wet building materials and furnishings should be cleaned and dried within 24 to 48 hours after a leak or spill.

  • Keep indoor relative humidity between 30 and 50 percent by ventilating to the outside bathrooms, locker rooms and other moisture-generating areas, and by using air conditioners and dehumidifiers.

  • Scrub mold off hard surfaces with water and detergent.

  • Replace porous materials, such as ceiling tiles or carpet, when they become moldy.

  • Avoid installing carpet near drinking fountains or sinks, and on concrete floors that are in contact with the ground and subject to frequent condensation.

  • Cover cold surfaces, such as cold-water pipes, with insulation.

  • Restrict moisture-generating activities, such as carpet cleaning, during vacation unless moisture-removing equipment is operating. Schools should consider running the air-conditioning system several hours every day or running portable dehumidifiers.

Fresh ideas

Making sure students and staff have sufficient amounts of fresh air to breathe should be a fundamental element of any effort to improve indoor air quality. Some steps to improve air quality are basic: having more operable windows enables students and staff members to let fresh air into a classroom when it is needed.

But just opening windows in a school building is not likely to provide fresh air in enough quantity and in the right places to solve ventilation problems, especially when climatic conditions are not conducive to open windows. Education facility managers need to make sure they have properly designed and regularly maintained cooling and heating systems.

A 2006 book produced by the National Resource Council's Board on Infrastructure and the Constructed Environment, Green Schools: Attributes for Health and Learning, recommends that school facilities have ventilation rates that, at a minimum, meet standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). In addition, schools should conduct research to assess the costs and benefits of ventilation rates that exceed the ASHRAE standard.

“Scientific evidence indicates that increased ventilation rates can reduce the incidence of building-related systems,” the book says. “ … Increased ventilation rates may also reduce the potential for reactions among airborne pollutants that generate irritating products.”

The board also recommends that green school guidelines stress the importance of preventive maintenance for ventilation systems, such as replacing filters, and cleaning coils and drip pans.

Building IAQ in

Construction practices also can affect the indoor environmental quality of a completed building. The U.S. Department of Energy's EnergySmart Schools program recommends several strategies:

  • Separate materials that give off toxins (e.g., plywood with formaldehyde) or emit particulates (e.g., fiberglass insulation) with careful placement, encapsulation, or barriers.

  • Require the contractor to recycle construction materials.

  • Ensure that unconventional products are installed properly.

  • Require proper handling and storage of toxic materials at the job site.

  • Require that the packaging of products, materials and equipment delivered to the site be made of recyclable or reusable materials, and discourage unnecessary packaging.

  • Ensure that product and material substitutions during construction contain the same energy and environmental benefits.

  • Avoid materials that are likely to adversely affect occupant health. Interior furnishings and finishes, and mechanical systems all have the potential to affect the indoor air quality for better or worse.

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

For more information on energy/IAQ in schools, visit the Energy & Indoor Environment section at

Maintenance money

To combat the continuing problem of less than acceptable indoor air quality in their facilities, schools will need more funding devoted to maintenance.

That's one of the conclusions drawn in a 2006 report by the Florida Solar Energy Center, “School Conditions Will Continue to Earn Failing Grades.”

The center collected survey data from 239 schools and arranged for field audits at eight schools around the nation. It found that the most common complaint about classroom comfort was temperature-related, followed by indoor air quality and humidity. All eight of the schools audited had ventilation problems.

The study concluded that schools have the ability to correct the inadequate conditions in their facilities, but they have to have the budget to carry out retrofits.

“Without substantial funding being made available for school maintenance, widespread significant improvements will not be realized,” the study says.

Beyond financing, a greater philosophical commitment to healthful building conditions can make a difference in a school system.

“School boards and administrators need to prioritize the health and welfare of the students, and that in turn requires better maintenance of school facilities,” the report concludes.

Even when low-cost solutions are available to correct problems, some schools have been hesitant to adopt better maintenance techniques, the report found. It suggests that state education departments “may need to provide energy/air quality specialists with decision authority in order to ensure acceptable comfort conditions for school children.”


In millions, the number of children in the United States who have asthma.


In millions, the number of school absences each year attributed to asthma.

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