Today’s students spend an average of six hours a day, five days a week, 40 or so weeks a year, for a minimum of 12 years in classrooms. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) research, their indoor environment quality (IEQ) can play a major role in their health and academic performance.
Key environmental factors such as heating and cooling, ventilation, cleaning processes and products, and other maintenance issues have been proven to trigger a host of health problems that increase absenteeism and reduce academic performance. For example:
- Children in classrooms with higher outdoor air ventilation rates tend to achieve higher scores on standardized tests in math and reading than children in poorly ventilated classrooms
- The presence of dampness and mold increase the risk of asthma and related adverse respiratory health effects in homes by 30-50%
- Evidence shows modest changes in room temperature affect student ability to perform mental tasks requiring concentration
- Schools without maintenance backlogs have a higher average daily attendance (ADA) by average of 4 to 5 students per 1,000 and lower annual dropout rate by 10 to 13 students per 1,000
Despite these findings, a recent article in Sourceable is suggesting that critical IEQ problems in schools are being overlooked. According to the article, while IEQ in commercial office buildings tends to get most of the press today, poor performing IEQ has the biggest implications in schools.
ASHRAE 62 recommends a maximum 1,000 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 for indoor environments. However, recently measured levels in some schools are far exceeding this number.
“There have been a number of schools where we have measured carbon dioxide levels (as a proxy for ventilation effectiveness) at approximately 3,000 ppm. These have generally been occupied classrooms, often in winter, where the classrooms are closed off and clearly not adequately ventilated,” sites Jack Noonan, senior consultant at technical risk management consultancy CETEC
Another study in 2002 of 120 classrooms in Texas found that 88% of classrooms exceeded 1,000 ppm and 21% exceeded 3,000 ppm.
This is very alarming because a 2012 report — Is CO2 an indoor pollutant? Direct effects of low-to-moderate CO2 concentrations on human decision-making performance — found:
- Levels of 1,000 ppm to 2,500 ppm significantly decrease performance, and in some cases task performance was classified as “dysfunctional,” at levels of 2,500 ppm
- The impact of 2,500 ppm of carbon dioxide is roughly equivalent to a 0.08 alcohol concentration — the same as the limit for driving in the U.S.
And, data compiled from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, OSHA, NIOSH, and ACGIH found that even 1,000 ppm levels increase the number of headache, fatigue, and eye and throat irritation complaints. It also notes that levels between 2,000 ppm and 5,000 ppm and stagnant, stuffy air are associated with widespread headaches, sleepiness, poor concentration, loss of attention, increased heart rate, and slight nausea.
Poor ventilation also attracts other indoor air contaminants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. VOCs are found in a range of building and maintenance products used in classrooms. The toxicity of VOCs vary — some are just irritants while others are known to cause cancer. Studies have also shown that in addition to significant health effects, there are cognitive declines associated with exposures to VOCs.
This critical issue is also linked to the spread of viral and bacterial infections, with mold being a big contributing factor. Mold increases the prevalence of chronic health conditions such as asthma, allergies, and other sensitivities. In fact, asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism in U.S. school children.
According the article, this is a worldwide problem and references a 2015 report from the World Health Organization (WHO). Their study found poor indoor school environments to be a particular problem in many countries in the WHO European region, with issues including stuffy air, dampness and mold, uncomfortable temperatures, and poorly functioning toilets.
“Our analysis shows substantial environmental problems in schools, which are largely overlooked. We hope that decision-makers take stock of the evidence and make sure that existing norms and regulations are implemented,” said Dr Marco Martuzzi, program manager, Environmental Health Intelligence and Forecasting at WHO/Europe.
It’s crucial that we put a stronger focus on IEQ improvements and maintenance in schools for the health, safety, and development of our children. However, we know most schools in the U.S. — and everywhere — struggle to obtain funding for these types of facility projects and often have to postpone upgrades due to decreased revenues.
Luckily, there are building maintenance providers who specialize in helping schools make the critical infrastructure improvements and technical system upgrades they need to better manage IEQ. Through creative financing options and retrofit packages, specialists such as ABM Building and Energy Solutions allow schools to fund these projects through future guaranteed energy savings and often times general fund relief. There is no upfront capital required, and no impact on the existing education budget.
For more details on this subject, read the complete Sourceable article. For more information on ABM’s innovative solutions for schools and the benefits these schools have received, click here.