Help Students Breathe Easy

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on the quality of air in schools and universities, and the associated impact of poor air quality on learning and focus.

A number of studies by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other organizations have shown that the condition of the air in classrooms and other spaces where students gather can have a negative impact on learning.

The term IAQ stands for “indoor air quality” and refers to characteristics of the air in indoor environments, such as levels of pollutants, humidity, temperature, air exchange rates and other factors that impact occupants’ comfort and health. Because their bodies are still developing, children and young adults are inherently more vulnerable to environmental hazards such as poor indoor air quality. They breathe a greater volume of air relative to their body weight and experts believe this may lead to a greater burden of pollutants on their bodies.

Indoor Air Quality and Educational Environments The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to making schools better places to learn. The group provides guidance and tools that help schools become healthy, safe, energy and water efficient, well-lit, and thermally and acoustically sound. According to CHPS, indoor pollutants such as chemical toxins can create significant health risks and adverse learning conditions for students. They report that if pollutants are kept out of the classroom, stale air is reduced, and mold growth is eliminated, the result will be fewer sick days for both students and instructors, especially those with asthma or other respiratory problems.

Additionally, the EPA’s Student Health and Academic Performance Guide (November 2012) reports that there is mounting evidence that indoor air quality directly impacts the academic performance of our nation’s students.

These studies have been supported by extensive research conducted by the University of Tulsa’s Indoor Air Program. The university program is led by Dr. Richard Shaughnessy, a leading expert in the area of IAQ, who has published extensively. A paper regarding the association between substandard classroom ventilation rates and students’ academic achievement, written by Dr. Shaughnessy and other researchers, was recognized as one of the best papers published in Indoor Air during 2011-2013 by the ISIAQ Academy of Fellows (International Society of Indoor Air Quality & Climate).

A Proactive Approach with an IAQ Management Program

Schools and colleges can take a proactive approach to protect the indoor air in learning facilities by developing an IAQ Management Program. The program scope may include confirming that ventilation rates are appropriate, reducing chemicals in cleaning agents, and reviewing the makeup of building materials and interior furnishings. The elements of an IAQ Management Program might also include inspecting and maintaining HVAC systems on a regular schedule, and responding promptly to spills and moisture to avoid mold and microbial growth.

One resource that administrators will want to consider is the use of the Best Practices Manual, developed by CHPS. This tool can help schools and higher education learning institutions achieve high performance design, construction and operation. Among many other topics, the manual includes guidance about achieving healthy indoor air quality through appropriate building maintenance and cleaning, using effectively designed and commissioned HVAC systems to ensure ventilation rates are adequate to remove indoor pollutants, and choosing low-emitting, nontoxic building materials and furnishings.

A critical factor that learning institutions should consider is adopting a policy of purchasing only furnishings such as flooring, paint, wall coverings or furniture that have been certified by an independent organization for meeting recognized, science-based IAQ criteria. For example, a school may require that furniture meet the criteria of the Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Credit 4.5 in the LEEDR for Schools green building rating system. Chairs, tables, desks, soft seating and other furniture that meet the strict standards of this credit will usually carry the Indoor AdvantageT Gold label or the Greenguard Children & Schools label.

Pursuing LEED Green Building Certification

The Indoor Advantage Gold label is awarded by an independent third party certifier, and ensures that the furniture meets stringent standards for low-level emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde and aldehydes. VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids and include a variety of chemicals. They may cause eye or respiratory irritation, headaches, contribute to chronic sinusitis, or trigger asthma, impacting a student’s health, wellbeing and ability to concentrate. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to excessive VOCs include burning eyes, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, labored breathing, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and dizziness. As one can imagine, high levels of VOCs within a learning environment can drive absences and poor performance.

A possible strategy to help ensure that the VOC levels within a school or university are negligible might include pursuing a certification to LEED or other green building rating systems. A less strenuous pathway could include following some of the steps listed above, or utilizing the guidance provided by organizations such as CHPS, or the EPA in their IAQ Tools for Schools tool. The overall goal, of course, is to help protect the health and success of students, faculty and visitors. Adopting a sensible, comprehensive IAQ Management Program can assist administrators not only in providing environments that nurture students’ hearts and minds, as well as their bodies.

About the Author
Lisa Schmidt–LEED AP BD+C– is the Segment and Sustainability Marketing Manager for National Office Furniture. She is a LEED AP BD+C Accredited Professional supporting the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Green Building Rating System. Lisa serves on National’s Sustainability Council.