Into Thin Air

A few years ago, workers installed carpets in the classrooms of New Ulm (Minn.) Public Schools during the middle of the summer. It made sense - the students were gone, and the buildings were virtually empty.

But school officials learned that mid-summer carpet installation did not make sense for the indoor air quality (IAQ) of the schools. The ventilation systems were turned off during the summer, and the emissions from the new carpets were unable to escape from the buildings.

"Now we install our carpeting as soon as school lets out for the summer," says Scott Hogen, supervisor of facilities for the New Ulm district. "We have the ventilation running to air out the area and off-gas the carpeting."

Small changes like that have helped New Ulm and other schools improve the air quality inside their facilities. New Ulm was one of 10 districts honored last year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their efforts to improve indoor air quality.

As educators focus more intently on how facilities affect student learning, school officials - with the encouragement of the EPA and its "IAQ Tools for Schools" program - are paying more attention to indoor air quality.


Poor air conditions can harm the quality of education, according to the EPA. It can create an uncomfortable environment that makes it more difficult for students to learn; cause more health problems and absenteeism among students and staff; spread airborne infectious diseases; contribute to the deterioration of the school building and equipment; and result in potential liability problems and strained relationships between parents and school officials.

IAQ problems can result from deteriorating ventilation systems in older buildings, but newer buildings can have problems, too. Newly constructed buildings often are sealed more tightly than older structures. They often have less ventilation to conserve energy. Synthetic materials and furnishings are used more often, as well as chemically based products such as pesticides, housekeeping supplies and personal-care products.

More than other buildings, schools can be prone to poor air quality. Schools typically have more people in closer spaces than other buildings. Children, because of their size, may be more susceptible to pollution and contaminants than adults. The materials used - art and science supplies, appliances in home-economics courses, and supplies and equipment in industrial or vocational classes - can generate pollution.

The EPA identifies two common problems in schools that could be costly to fix. A leaky roof can cause water damage inside a building and contamination from mold, fungi or bacteria. Restoring a deteriorated ventilation system to its original design also can be expensive.

With tight budgets, many school systems don't have enough money available to maintain or improve the air quality in their facilities.

"There's not enough money for schools - not just for maintenance, but for every aspect of education," says Art Benton, director of maintenance and transportation for Clear Creek School District in Colorado. "The money's not there."

Benton would like to begin IAQ programs in all of Clear Creek's five schools. With its funds limited, the district has been able to establish "IAQ Tools for Schools" at only one school - King-Murphy Elementary School. It also was honored by the EPA for its IAQ efforts.

"We've had this program for almost two years," says Benton. "It has helped us recognize many different problems."


Everyone involved in the school - parents, students, teachers, other staff members - is encouraged to be aware of the air conditions and report any signs of problems.

Clear Creek custodians are changing the air filters in the heating equipment more often - four times a year instead of twice a year. The ventilation system was drawing fumes into the school from buses idling outside, so the school installed timers to close off the ventilation at the times of the day when the buses were present. The school also curtailed the number of animals allowed in the building.

The district is seeking an EPA grant so it can buy art and science supplies less likely to harm air quality, exhaust hoods to remove contaminants from classrooms, and higher-quality vacuum cleaners to remove dust and other particles more thoroughly.

Benton says officials can see a difference in the climate at King-Murphy.

"The kids are not as sleepy or groggy in the afternoon," says Benton. "They seem to be more alert. When they are happier in class, they learn more."

In the New Ulm district, officials have taken similar steps to improve air quality: removing animals from classrooms, improving the quality of vacuum cleaners, using better air filters and changing them more often, fixing leaks, and removing mold from pipe coverings and ceiling tiles.

"We've re-addressed the way we clean, and the time we clean," says Hogen.

Custodians had cleaned floors and carpets during the evening shift, even though the ventilation systems were shut off. Now the ventilation is kept operating while that cleaning takes place, and it is set to turn on in the morning 90 minutes before school starts to air out the building.

The district also has altered how it extracts carpets. This was done during the summer, when humidity was usually high, and workers found it difficult to get the carpets dried quickly enough to avoid mold problems. Now custodians extract smaller amounts of carpet at one time and run large fans around the clock to make sure the carpet dries.


Asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism in schools - it accounts for more than 10 million missed school days per year, according to the EPA. Nearly one in 13 school-aged children has asthma, and the percentage of children with asthma is rising more quickly in preschool-aged children than in any other group.

An effective indoor air quality program can reduce the presence of allergens and irritants that trigger asthma, as well as help students with asthma avoid episodes that can interfere with their learning.

The EPA recommends several actions to help schools improve conditions of their facilities for those with asthma:

- Remove classroom animals from the school, if possible. If not, place animals away from sensitive students and ventilation systems.

- Use integrated pest management to prevent cockroach and other pest problems (for example, store food in tightly sealed containers and place dumpsters away from the building).

- Fix moisture problems and thoroughly dry wet areas within 24 to 48 hours to prevent mold growth.

- Enforce no-smoking policies.

- Make sure the school is dusted and vacuumed thoroughly and regularly.

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