Are you a teacher, parent, or administrator? The classroom is often overlooked when it comes to indoor air quality. Join the movement and embrace these suggestions for improving health in your classroom!
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is acutely aware of the hazards of poor indoor air quality, noting that children are especially vulnerable.
The developing bodies of children might be more susceptible to environmental exposures than those of adults. Children breathe more air, eat more food and drink more liquid in proportion to their body weight than adults. Therefore, air quality in schools is of particular concern. Proper maintenance of indoor air is more than a “quality” issue; it encompasses safety and stewardship of your investment in students, staff and facilities.
(For more, see the EPA document Why Indoor Air Quality is Important to Schools.)
The National Center for Education Statistics estimates the average age of the nation’s main school buildings is 55 years old—putting the average date of construction for our nation’s schools at 1959. What’s more, nearly half of our schools have problems related to indoor air quality.
With more than 130,000 public and private K–12 schools enrolling some 55 million children and employing about 7 million adults—in all, 20 percent of the total US population—there is good reason to be proactive when it comes to air quality in the classroom.
Tips for Improving Air Quality in the Classroom
Many of these tips are taken from the National Healthy Schools Day IAQ Checklist. National Healthy Schools Day is coordinated by Healthy Schools Network in partnership with many agencies and organizations. Why not get your school’s administration on board? Learn more here.
1. Prevent Mold and Mildew
Molds can trigger asthma and other health problems.
I have heard from at least four teachers in recent months who became ill from a classroom. This is Jodie’s story:
Having lived a healthy life abroad for many years, I returned home to Australia and began a new elementary teaching position in a water-damaged room—a tiny, windowless classroom underneath a flat roof that was crowned with a small brick fence; an open invitation for mold. The room and air conditioner were rancid with mold and the adjoining covered playground reeked of possum urine. Within the first few months, I began to notice mounting symptoms; I thought I was just experiencing stress and aging.
However, four years later I was in excruciating pain from my scalp to my coccyx. My body and neck started to twist and contort. All my systems had crashed, and fifty symptoms and several illnesses activated and overwhelmed my body, mind, and spirit. I had developed a couple of movement disorders and autoimmune diseases: progressive segmental dystonia (a rare autoimmune disease that typically occurs in children), PANDAS, Hashimoto’s, MCS, and dysautonomia, to name just a few.
Jodie was able to recover her health after leaving the classroom and integrating numerous nutritional and alternative treatments. Learn more about Jodie at her website, Nourish the Solution.
- Check for signs of water damage such as rippling paint or water marks on ceilings and walls.
- Check for musty or earthy smells, as well as persistent dampness in the classroom.
- Pay attention to water leaks or signs of water damage on window sills.
- Fix water leaks promptly.
- Never open a wall without proper containment.
Learn more about toxic mold in the article A Beginner’s Guide to Toxic Mold.
2. Control Dust
Dust mites can trigger asthma and allergy attacks. According to the EPA document noted above,
Nearly 1 in 13 children of school-age has asthma, the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness. There is substantial evidence that indoor environmental exposure to allergens, such as dust mites, pests and molds, plays a role in triggering asthma symptoms. These allergens are common in schools.
- Use microfiber cloths and mops to clean surfaces.
- Use vacuum cleaners with HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters.
- Remove classroom clutter.
- Store projects in clean containers.
- Use walk-off floor mats at all entrances to trap dirt.
- Leave classrooms ready-to-clean at the end of the day.
3. Ensure Fresh Air Flow and Efficient Ventilation
Poor ventilation allows pollutants to accumulate indoors. According to the World Health Organization,
Ventilation is intended to remove or dilute pollutants and to control the thermal environment and humidity in buildings. It must be sufficient either to remove pollutants and humidity generated indoors or to dilute their concentrations to acceptable levels for the health and comfort of the occupants and must be sufficient to maintain the building’s integrity.
A 2015 Harvard University study found that workers in a well-ventilated building experienced improved cognitive function by more than 100 percent compared with employees in a poorly ventilated building. (See The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function.)
Since learning is at the heart of every school’s mission, it makes sense to pay attention to ventilation!
- Check for odd, unpleasant odors (clean doesn’t have an odor).
- Clean air supply vents regularly.
- Keep air flow pathways clear (keep plants, books, papers, projects away from vents).
- Make sure all windows open.
- Use local exhaust fans for water-intensive areas (bathrooms, kitchens, gyms) and pollution-generating areas (chemistry, art, and biology labs, copier rooms).
4. Prevent Toxic Fumes and Reduce Chemical Exposures
The fewer chemicals the better, when it comes to the health of the classroom. Conventional cleaning products, as well as artificial fragrances, can trigger headaches, respiratory problems, and more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted a fragrance-free policy in 2009 acknowledging the health risks associated with fragranced products. Surely our children and staff deserve the same precautionary approach.
- Inventory and dispose of outdated hazardous, flammable chemicals.
- Use low-emission products, equipment, interior finishes and furnishings.
- Use certified green cleaning products screened by an independent third party.*
- Ban air fresheners and room deodorizers.
- Use water-based, unscented markers.
- Ban dry-erase (“huff-able”) markers.
- Don’t use aerosol sprays.
- Avoid perfumes, colognes, and scented hair or skin care products.
- Use an essential oil diffuser to freshen the air.
* For more suggestions on safe cleaning products, see Cleaning For Healthy Schools.
5. Practice Safe Pest Control
Conventional pesticides kill living organisms. Many of them work as a nerve poison. Why take a chance when it comes to a school environment? Pesticides can spread through air, seep into soil and water, and be tracked into schools.
- Keep plants and dumpsters away from buildings.
- Screen and caulk building cracks and crevices.
- Keep food out of the classroom.
- Try simple, natural controls first.
- Use bait or spot pesticide treatments.
- For serious infestations, contact an eco-friendly pest control company.
For more on this issue, see my article Why Pesticides Don’t Belong in Schools.
Wi-Fi in Schools
There is a growing awareness that wireless radiation is not as innocent as once thought. Ashland, Massachusetts, is the first school district in the nation to incorporate safe technology practices.
(For more on this critical issue, see Health Risks of Wi-Fi in Schools.)
The National Healthy Schools Day program concludes its Indoor Air Quality Checklist this way:
- Use a suggestion/complaint box for people to submit observations and concerns.
- Watch for children or teachers whose health worsens in school.
- Fix small problems before they become big, expensive headaches.
Creating a safe classroom may be overwhelming, but knowledge is power when it comes to the connection between health and the environment. We owe it to our students and staff to provide safe and healthy schools.