Healthy indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools is crucial if we want to protect our children’s health as well as their ability to learn, grow and develop as individuals.
Unfortunately, these days, the health and safety of our kids is being threatened by a number of indoor air pollutants such as asbestos, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide and mold, among many others.
Making things worse is the fact that the concentration of air pollutants present indoors is much higher now than ever before. This can be attributed to a wide range of factors, including:
- The construction of more tightly sealed buildings
- Improper ventilation and problems with HVAC systems
- Carpeted classrooms
- Off-gassing of synthetic building materials and furnishings
- Off-gassing of chemically formulated cleaning products
- Building deterioration
- Overcrowding due to larger class sizes
- Decreased resources allotted to school maintenance
How does this lead to problems? Read on…
How poor IAQ affects children’s health
While poor indoor air quality affects people of all ages, children are more sensitive to toxic substances and are, therefore, at a particularly high risk.
Basically, their bodies are still undergoing rapid growth, their immune systems are still developing and their breathing zones are closer to the ground, making them more likely to inhale chemicals, dust, mold spores and other particles.
As a result of exposure to indoor air pollutants, children often experience non-specific symptoms rather than clearly defined illnesses. If you notice that your child is displaying any of the following symptoms, he or she may be at risk:
- Shortness of breath
- Nasal congestion
- Coughing and sneezing
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Nose and throat irritation
- Rashes and skin irritation
- Dizziness and nausea
- Inability to concentrate and hyperactivity
- Short-term memory loss
To keep your children safe at school and at home, you have to ensure that their indoor air is fresh and clean. The best way to do this is by getting an indoor air quality test.
Where do indoor air contaminants come from?
Indoor air pollutants can originate within the school (e.g. formaldehyde and other VOCs produced by the off-gassing of furniture, paint, etc.) or they can be drawn in from outdoors (e.g. mold, pollen). Either way, they can lead to poor indoor air quality, which affects not just the students, but also the teachers, administrative staff and custodians.
Many schools across the country were built during the years that asbestos use in construction was at its highest. As such, asbestos can be found in a number of building materials common in schools, such as ceiling panels, floor tiles, drywall, heating and air conditioning equipment, and pipe insulation.
If the asbestos fibres were to become airborne, they would put students, teachers and other school staff at risk of asbestos exposure since airborne asbestos fibres are tiny and can be inhaled easily.
Exposure can lead to permanent damage of the lungs and other organs as well as fatal illnesses such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and even lung cancer.
Synthetic materials found in many building materials, pieces of furniture, fabrics, textiles and carpets often break down at room temperature and release VOCs like formaldehyde into the air. They act as major reservoirs of irritants and allergens, which worsen the indoor air quality at school.
Wall-to-wall carpeting, for example, gives off VOCs and collects other contaminants such as dust, mold and mildew, all of which are known to trigger allergic reactions and to increase children’s risk of asthma.
VOCs have been shown to cause other upper respiratory symptoms as well as headaches, and eye irritation among a variety of other symptoms collectively known as Sick Building Syndrome.
Microbial contaminants such as fungi, mold and mildew–all of which proliferate in warm, moist environments–can have very serious health effects when present indoors in large amounts.
In fact, mold has been a major problem for schools as it is well-known to adversely affect the health of both children and adults.
Symptoms typically include headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, coughing, sneezing and other allergy-like symptoms. They tend to be most prevalent in spring; however, prolonged exposure to mold can have long-term effects too, including neurological damage and serious respiratory disease.
What you can do about it
While all the research points to the fact that many schools do not have particularly healthy indoor air quality, ways that IAQ can be improved. One such way is with routine air quality testing, which will check for the presence of mold, mildew and other fungal spores, as well as VOCs, asbestos, bacteria and other contaminants.