The Green Obligation

The Green Obligation

As the green movement grows, studies provide conclusive evidence about the benefits of environmentally conscious practices indoors and outdoors. Schools are no exception. Many of these studies demonstrate how poor indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools adversely affects many of the nation's 55 million students with health problems such as asthma and flu. These IAQ-related health issues can result in sick days, reduced performance and lower test scores.

Creating a more healthful school environment can help protect students, teachers and administrators from the harmful effects of poor IAQ; however, many facility managers considering green products and practices face cost concerns. Some refer to this cost as “green premium.” Some studies suggest that lack of awareness may contribute to the belief that green practices have an added cost. A 2005 study completed by Turner Construction Co. found that school administrators refrain from investing in green design and programs because of a general lack of awareness about the benefits of green construction.

Another report, “Greening America's Schools: Costs and Benefits,” sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, American Institute of Architects, American Lung Association, Federation of American Scientists and the U.S. Green Building Council studied the cost, benefits and savings associated with green schools. Comparing green construction in 30 schools with conventional school construction, the study found that green schools cost less than 2 percent more to build. When examined over the long term, the financial benefits of green school design, such as reduced waste and energy and water use, can be more than 20 times as large as the initial 2 percent investment.

Building the case

The expense associated with using safer and more healthful building care products and procedures pales in comparison to the cost of sick students and staff.

According to the American Lung Association, asthma exacerbated by poor IAQ causes children to miss more than 14.5 million school days a year. It is the third leading cause of hospitalization among children under the age of 15. Overall, annual healthcare costs for patients with asthma are around $11.5 billion with an additional $4.6 billion in indirect costs (e.g., lost productivity).

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, recently evaluated five studies that looked at the impact of improved IAQ on asthma. It concluded that improved IAQ led to an average 38.5 percent reduction in asthma. When comparing green schools with conventionally constructed schools, the incidence of asthma declined 25 percent. This translates into a savings of $33,000 in a 900-student school.

Improving IAQ provides benefits that go beyond reducing asthma rates. Incidents of cold and flu also lessen in schools that have green programs and construction. Another review by Carnegie Mellon found that improved air quality in schools caused a 51 percent reduction in cold and flu cases incurred by building occupants. Including the economic impact of a parent who stays home from work to care for a sick child, an estimated $45 per student is saved by providing better ventilation and IAQ.

Improved health translates into an enhanced educational environment for students. In the 2005 Turner Construction survey, 70 percent of executives interviewed who were involved with green schools reported that students performed better and had fewer absences. Related studies show substantial improvements in standardized test scores and other educational markers.

Green steps

Facility managers can take a few simple steps to improve IAQ and student health. Selecting environmentally preferable cleaning chemicals is a good first step in developing a healthy, high-performance cleaning program. Facility managers also should take a holistic approach to cleaning a facility by looking at its core mission and surveying those activities that take place there.

A few recommendations:

  • Dusting

    When using traditional dusting cloths and techniques, cleaning workers merely move dust and contaminants around from one place to another. This wastes labor. Products such as microfiber cloths capture soils completely so they are not lifted into the air where occupants can be exposed to the particles.

  • Entryway maintenance

    This is critical for keeping contaminants from entering a facility. Proper maintenance and matting in these areas increase the life of flooring systems, and it reduces the amount of labor required to maintain it through the application of finishers and sealants.

  • Integrated pest management

    Pests can be harmful to a building and serve as carriers of potential diseases. Many traditional pesticides may present substantial risks to students. Ultimately, strategies that prevent or deter pests from entering a building can help minimize pesticide use.

  • Independently certified systems

    Organizations such as GREENGUARD offer certifications of a complete cleaning system targeted specifically for use in schools. The systems identify products and processes that limit harmful emissions in chemicals.

Adams is the director of marketing for government and education, JohnsonDiversey North America, Sturtevant, Wis.


Percentage of estimated additional cost for green construction compared with conventional construction.

Source: “Greening America's Schools: Costs and Benefits,” October 2006, sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, American Institute of Architects, American Lung Association, Federation of American Scientists and the U.S. Green Building Council.

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