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Our Children’s Schools Indoor Air Quality Issues: How Indoor Pollution Affects Health and Learning

May 2, 2016

While many parents are aware of the importance of protecting their children from toxins at home and in the environment, they often give little thought to the schools indoor air quality that their children inhabit throughout much of the year. Many no doubt presume that the air at school is no worse than the air at home, but this is often not the case; in recent decades, manifold issues have intersected to cause a serious degradation of the indoor environment in many schools, raising the risk of both health issues and learning difficulties.

According to studies conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times higher than the levels of pollutants found outdoors, and this figure can sometimes rise to more than 100 times higher than outdoor levels within schools and other large facilities.[1] Given the fact that today, both children and adults spend (on average) 90 percent of their time indoors, this pollution is of significant concern. Indeed, studies now consistently rank indoor air pollution as being among the top four environmental health risks to the public.[2]

In an interview held between the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) and the Bureau of Environmental Health (BEH), it was revealed that schools are the perfect breeding ground for indoor air pollution. This is due to the following factors:
  • Increasing student occupant ratio. In many of today’s schools, students are crowded closely together, with class sizes being far larger than they were just a few decades ago. This situation has gotten so extreme that the typical school has approximately four times as many occupants as office buildings for the same amount of floor space, causing bacteria and other contaminants to build up.
  • Tightening school budgets, resulting in reduced maintenance staff and services. Since the recession of the early 2000s, school funding has been cut drastically, meaning that there is less money available to pay custodial and maintenance staff, leading to reductions in schools indoor air quality. According to the online publication Most States Still Funding Schools Less than Before the Recession by Michael Leachman and Chris Mai, “At least 30 states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-15 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent.”[3] As maintenance is often deemed somewhat superfluous vs. materials and services that directly affect a student’s schoolwork (for instance, essential school supplies like paper, chalk, and pens), maintenance funds are often the hardest hit by school budget cuts.
  • Schools contain a variety of pollutant sources, such as art and science supplies, materials used for the industrial and vocational arts, the activities of home economic classes and gyms, and a lot of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning equipment which easily spreads pollutants if not properly maintained. Likewise, as is the case in many indoor environments, outdated construction and insulation materials often leach toxins into the air, as does carpeting and upholstery.
  • Schools are centers of concentrated diesel exhaust exposure due to school buses (and other vehicles) which frequently idle on-site, releasing a significant amount of pollution into the air. Not only does this infiltrate indoor air systems, students are exposed to these pollutants while waiting outdoors and during the long, daily school bus rides to and from school. A study done by the Coalition for Clean Air and the University of California at Berkeley found that the levels of diesel exhaust inside a school bus can be four times higher than those in passenger cars driving ahead of the bus.[4] As diesel fumes are a known human carcinogen, this exposure has serious long-term ramifications.
  • Many schools have poor maintenance plans. In order to deal with overcrowding within schools, many school officials have opted to add extra space in the form of rooms, portable classrooms, and/or out-buildings that were not originally designed to be a part of the school. Often, the operation and maintenance of each of these additions is poorly-managed, and the unique needs of each new addition are not adequately taken into account.
  • Schools frequently have inadequate ventilation. Mixing outdoor air with indoor air is key to diluting indoor air pollutants, yet many schools have ventilation systems which do not even attempt to do so, instead simply recycling polluted indoor air (allowing pollutants to slowly accumulate). In a study of California classrooms, for example, it was found that within the Central Valley climate zone (which includes the Sacramento, Yolo, Placer, El Dorado, and Kern Counties) all the schools surveyed had air-conditioning systems that did not circulate outside air into the classrooms. Researchers also discovered that more than 95 percent of the air-conditioned Central Valley schoolrooms failed to meet the state of California’s minimum ventilation rate, with portable classrooms ranking worst of all, typically not even meeting 50 percent of the state’s requirements.[5]
  • Schools are often ideal environments for mold growth. Schools contain many sources of moisture infiltration (such as ageing water fountains, leaky plumbing, leaks in the school building itself) which coalesce with poor ventilation to create the perfect environment for mold growth. The mold then produces spores (which may contain highly poisonous mycotoxins, as well as typically being highly allergenic) which are released into the air and spread throughout the school building via the ventilation system. According to the online publication Controlling Mold in Schools, mold infestations can cause sinus inflammation, nose bleeds, respiratory diseases, can irritate existing asthma symptoms and allergies, and in extreme cases, can even have neurotoxic, reproductive, and carcinogenic effects. In spite of these risks, there is no federal regulation concerning mold remediation in schools.[6]
  • Schools have high levels of EMF radiation. While radiation is not a particulate air pollutant, it should still be considered alongside other indoor environmental issues as it is of such a particular concern in schools. While EMF radiation is ubiquitous in the Western world today, schools contain far higher levels of EMF than is “normal”: Up to three to five times the levels found in most homes or offices. This is due to a multitude of factors, from powerful school wifi systems, to students clustering together in large numbers while carrying cell phones, to the fact that schools are often placed perilously close to cellular broadcasting towers. [7]


Understanding the Adverse Effects of Indoor Air Pollution in Schools

In addition to the obvious threats—an increased risk of serious asthma attacks in asthmatic children and potentially-fatal poisoning by toxic mold—poor indoor air quality has a diverse range of more subtle chronic effects on student health, academic performance, and well-being.

Dr. John Santilli, a Connecticut allergist who has treated dozens of students sickened by school air, says that even when children’s symptoms can be managed well enough that they don’t miss school, the medications they take for asthma and allergic conditions like rhinitis can make it harder for them to do their best work.

“They’re on antihistamines, they’re on nasal sprays, they’re on asthma medications, and this limits their ability to perform,” Santilli explains. “These kids can’t concentrate. They can’t focus on what’s going on.”

Dr. Santilli went on to reveal that about 20% to 30% of people are allergic to mold or dust, which results in a range of distracting symptoms like itchy eyes, a constant runny nose, coughing, headaches, fatigue, and even memory and cognition problems (often compounded by the fact that these symptoms prevent children from attaining restful sleep at night).[8]

“It takes a lot to make you sick, but it takes very little exposure once you’re sensitized to provoke symptoms,” Santilli said. “As time goes on, it takes more and more out of you, and you get sicker and sicker.”

Even for those children lucky enough to escape allergic reactions to irritants like mold and dust mites, indoor air pollution can still have a negative impact on health and the ability to learn. Past health studies have revealed, for example, that the low ventilation rates present in many schools significantly raises the risk of illness in students (as germs are found in much denser concentrations within stagnant recycled air); research has suggested that if classroom ventilation rates were brought up to code, kids’ illness-related absences would decrease by 3.4 percent.[9]

EMF radiation also makes learning more difficult, according to many experts. Dr. Martha Herbert, a paediatric neurologist and neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, has observed that “EMF/RFR from wifi and cell towers can exert a disorganizing effect on the ability to learn and remember, and can also be destabilizing to immune and metabolic function. This will make it harder for some children to learn, particularly those who are already having problems in the first place.”

Additionally, there is a substantial risk of children going on to develop illnesses much later in life, notably cancer and immune conditions, due to being exposed to radiation, toxic mold, diesel fumes, and other contaminants.

Owing to the lack of federal regulations regarding schools indoor air quality, testing is not carried out reliably or in a timely fashion, instead often being reserved for those times when problems become obvious or critical (an attitude which allows many of the chronic issues outlined above to flourish indefinitely).

The reasons for this lack of vigilance extend beyond mere ignorance, however. Many schools purposefully avoid testing due to a fear of lost revenue and interruptions to the school year (from schools being shut down during testing), costly repairs and renovations, and unfavorable media exposure. Indeed, during the California study on indoor air quality and ventilation issues that was cited earlier in this article, the schools participating only did so on the condition that the exact districts’ locations be kept secret as school officials feared bad publicity.[10]

There are many other examples of such evasion on the part of school officials around the country; take the case of Lanier Middle School in Freeport, Texas: Not only did it take school officials over a year to investigate a suspected mold infestation, when a basic air sample did not reveal mold spores, the school quickly tried to place the issue on the back burner.[11]

“The school administration is trying to keep this under wraps,” said Kelly Adkins, a concerned parent in Freeport, who contacted the state health department after her daughter was twice rushed to a hospital by ambulance after suffering seizures at school. “Other parents whose kids are sick like mine don’t even know what’s going on. We were never informed of anything by the school district, and teachers were afraid to raise their concerns because they were afraid to lose their jobs.”

When it comes to improving the schools indoor air quality, it is often up to parents like Kelly to propel school officials to act, but many parents hesitate to do so. They often don’t know what to suggest, and many fear running up against a difficult and bureaucratic system, possibly making life harder for their children.

There are, however, ways in which parents can make a difference, such as through making use of the EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit. The kit provides guidelines, best practices, sample policies, and a sample management plan, as well as detailing how to improve HVAC systems, maintain filters and carbon monoxide detectors, control moisture and mold, manage pests, and implement better school cleaning policies. This gives parents an excellent map for how to both assess indoor air quality issues in schools and how to provide school officials with proven, inarguable methods of improving indoor air quality.

[1]     Department of Health, Vermont

[2]     Department of Health, Vermont


[4]     Why school bus diesel exhaust is bad and what you can do about it,

[5]     Poor ventilation in California classrooms may make kids ill, researchers say,

[6]     Controlling Mold in Schools,


[8]     Are schools making kids sick?

[9]     Poor ventilation in California classrooms may make kids ill, researchers say,

[10]   Poor ventilation in California classrooms may make kids ill, researchers say,

[11]   Kids Sick But Test Must Go On,

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