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More Than Mold

Over the past decade, dozens of educational facilities across the country have been closed because of indoor air quality (IAQ) problems. By far, the most publicized cases involve mold contamination. However, mold is only one of a variety of IAQ problems that can detract from the comfort and health of occupants.

Unique challenges

School and university administrators have a responsibility to provide safe indoor environments that help protect the health of students and staff. Schools are supposed to provide a safe haven for learning, playing and living, and are closely scrutinized if students' health is threatened. But managing indoor air quality in these facilities can be difficult.

In most cases, education institutions can't afford the costs of the planning, testing, regular maintenance and building renovations required to maximize indoor air quality.

These financial constraints, which are not as much of an issue for commercial building owners and managers, require school administrators to find innovative, cost-effective ways of addressing IAQ.

In addition, education facilities accommodate a variety of activities that can harm indoor air quality. Schools and universities house art classrooms, science laboratories, wood shops, cafeterias and janitorial closets — all spaces that can contribute pollutants to the air.

In many cases, these facilities were not built expressly for the purpose for which they are now used. The facilities design may not have incorporated appropriate or adequate ventilation systems, further exacerbating the problem.

This range of activities, combined with high occupancy rates in schools, means that students and staff may be exposed to a variety of pollutants.

As is the case in residential and commercial buildings, occupants generally are either part of the problem or part of the solution when it comes to IAQ. Many commercial facility managers are beginning to educate their tenants about indoor air quality, and how they can help identify and prevent problems early. In contrast, students generally are not informed or concerned about the dangers of poor IAQ. Students unwittingly contribute to the problem when they overlook early-stage problems such as leaks, water spots or improperly stored chemicals.

The average age of educational facilities is significantly greater than that of other commercial buildings. According to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, the average age of a school facility in the United States is 42 years. Commercial buildings in the United States are, on average, only 30 years old. Combined with the fact that expenditures on school operations and maintenance are significantly less than those for commercial buildings, this means that educational buildings are subject to more structural and mechanical problems that can cause IAQ problems.

All of these factors should be considered when developing an IAQ program in order to ensure that proposed solutions are plausible.

A number of pollutants

Educational facilities are afflicted with a variety of indoor air quality problems. To successfully manage IAQ, it is important to understand the most common pollutants and their sources:

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from cleaning products

    The very products intended to improve the quality of indoor spaces can seriously degrade indoor air quality. Cleaning products, including disinfectants, spot cleaners and floor strippers, as well as air fresheners, pesticides or other aerosol sprays, contain VOCs and solvents that are used to clean everything from chalkboards to toilets.

    These materials — some used on a daily basis — leave chemicals in the air long after the cleaning has been completed, creating an ever-present odor or irritating cocktail of airborne chemicals.

  • Emissions from finishes and furnishings

    Manufactured products — everything from paints to desks — emit VOCs into the air. These VOCs can produce symptoms that are uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating. Some, such as formaldehyde, have been identified as possible carcinogens, and others simply produce unpleasant odors. Activities such as painting, application of adhesives, drywall repairs and other “wet processes” also can introduce harmful agents into the air.

  • Allergens

    Environmental allergens are another common problem in indoor environments. Many schools have policies prohibiting animals in classrooms. Frequently, however, animal dander is unwittingly carried into a building on students' clothing. With the increasing incidence of allergies and asthma in children and young adults, these allergens can trigger anything from discomfort to asthma attacks among many students.

  • Mold

    The infamous IAQ culprit, mold, does present a major problem in schools and universities. Mold results from moisture and can cause adverse health effects or even damage to a building's structural integrity. Leaking water can be a problem in schools because of poor maintenance or construction defects, and because occupants are not encouraged to recognize or resolve the problems.

Best practices for prevention

School administrators can use many cost-effective measures to better protect indoor air quality:

  • Manage

    Identifying and addressing issues early is the best way to prevent major problems. Maintenance staff should be trained to look for and address leaks and plumbing problems immediately. Larger issues, such as roof leaks or chronic moisture problems, should be reported to administrators so that the proper resources can be made available.

    An understanding of how to prioritize IAQ problems is important so that urgent issues are addressed promptly. When confronted with a major contamination problem, administrators should put a management and communication plan in place to minimize the disruption to operations.

  • Minimize

    Reducing or eliminating pollutants at the source is the most effective way to protect indoor air quality. By selecting low-emitting furnishings and finishes, schools can help ensure that the products used in the building contribute only minimally to pollutants in the indoor air.

    Several institutions provide third-party verification of low-emitting products. These products are available at no additional cost to consumers and should be selected whenever possible.

    Facility managers can take several steps to reduce VOCs and odors from cleaning products. It is important to store these solutions in a well-ventilated area. Further, these materials should be stored securely to prevent leaks. In addition, facility managers should consider purchasing these products as needed, rather than storing large amounts for extended periods of time.

    Another effective method is to dilute cleaning solutions with water to reduce the potency of emissions and odors.

    It is possible to minimize the presence of dander and other environmental allergens by controlling the presence of pets and other animals in schools. Control of pests, such as insects and rodents, can be improved by minimizing the preparation and handling of food in areas not equipped with adequate cleanup capabilities.

  • Mitigate

    One of the best ways to mitigate the impact of pollutants is to ventilate areas sufficiently. By introducing adequate fresh, outdoor air into the building, VOCs and odors in the air are diluted. When repairs to the building involve wet processes such as painting, sealing or drywall installation, administrators should schedule a “flush out” period in which fresh air is brought into the building, and solvents are allowed to dry completely.

Whenever possible, cleaning activities should be scheduled after hours or on weekends. This will allow odors and VOCs to dissipate before students and staff return to the building.

When construction repairs are scheduled for a building, it is important to identify rooms that house high-emitting activities, such as science laboratories, and to add proper exhaust systems that carry pollutants out of the rooms and away from the building.

Epstien, MPH, CIH, is a senior industrial hygienist and Hughes is marketing manager with Air Quality Sciences (AQS), Marietta, Ga. AQS is a fully integrated indoor air quality company that provides solutions to create healthy indoor environments and avoid potentially dangerous indoor pollution.


The most common pollutants and their sources:

  • MOLD
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