The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to lobby building owners and facility managers about the importance of indoor air quality (IAQ) in residential, commercial and institutional buildings, including K-12 schools.

EPA’s IAQ literature warns that the Agency’s Science Advisory Board ranks indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health. Other EPA studies indicate that levels of indoor pollutants may be two to five times higher than outdoor levels.

What do these statistics mean to people’s health? Most people, says the EPA, spend 90 percent of their time indoors. In facilities with poor IAQ, the consequences can be devastating: building occupants may suffer from long- and short-term health effects including coughs, eye irritations, headaches, asthma episodes, allergic reactions and exposure to infectious diseases. In rare cases, inadequate IAQ can lead to life-threatening conditions.

Schools Are Different

Schools are different than commercial or government office buildings where people arrive for work every morning. A typical school houses four times as many occupants as an office building. A school also contains more polluting sources than an office building; these include art and science supplies as well as activities carried out in science labs, vocational shops, home economics classrooms and even gymnasiums.

Overcrowded schools often expand by adding portable classrooms or buildings not designed to satisfy the unique ventilation requirements of a school.

In short, IAQ problems can be worse in schools than other kinds of buildings. Moreover, poor school IAQ can make it harder for students to learn, teachers to teach and staff to work. These problems can reduce the efficiency of the school’s physical plant and equipment and raise costs related to utilities. Poor IAQ can raise the risk of room or building closings, strain relationships with parents, and create publicity that damages a school district’s reputation. Severe problems can create the potential for legal liability costs for districts.

Schools Are Beginning To Address Indoor Air Pollution

The EPA’s tireless lobbying about IAQ has begun to pay off, especially in schools. According to a recent survey conducted by EPA, about 20 percent of all schools questioned could demonstrate indoor air quality that met the EPA’s stringent standards.“While 20 percent of the schools met our standard, about 40 percent of the schools we looked at were conducting some kind of program to improve IAQ,” says Robert Axelrad, a spokesperson for the EPA’s Indoor Environmental Division.

Axelrad goes on to say that many of the schools that have been successful in managing indoor air quality use an EPA information kit called Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools. The kit offers an organizational plan for finding and fixing IAQ problems and for preventing outbreaks of harmful IAQ in the future.

IAQ Management Plan

The EPA IAQ management kit recommends as a first step the appointment of an IAQ coordinator or team leader. This individual may come from the ranks of district administrators in the business office, the health and safety department or the facilities department. In smaller systems or individual schools, the IAQ leader may be the principal, school nurse, a teacher or other member of the school’s staff.

Whoever is selected must have authority to deal with district-level personnel, school staff, students and parents. He or she must also have enough authority to at least influence budget decisions.

The IAQ coordinator assembles a team, whose members have the authority to control and monitor various components of IAQ.

• Teachers can monitor and control IAQ within their classrooms, reporting problems that do or may arise and asking for expert help.

• Administrators, the ultimate decision makers about building operations, control several polluting sources such as printing, photocopying, and kitchen areas.

• Facility managers, administrators with direct technical control over the operation of school heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, can help prevent and solve IAQ problems.

• Custodians carry out a variety of housekeeping activities that may affect IAQ for good or ill. By providing the custodial staff with appropriate information, the IAQ team can make sure that custodians’ work will benefit and not injure IAQ.

• Health professionals and school nurses may notice and alert other team members to developing IAQ problems as students, faculty, and staff report complaints.

• School board representatives can provide resources, authority, and funding necessary to implementing IAQ programs designed to prevent and solve problems.

• Contract service providers handle a variety of tasks that can adversely affect IAQ. These tasks include pesticide applications, construction work, landscaping, and HVAC maintenance. Vendors that sell furniture, carpet, and other products that give off fumes may also be pulled into the IAQ team at a school or within a school district.

• Students need information that will enable them to help maintain acceptable IAQ in school. Their tasks include personal hygiene and keeping theirs desks and lockers clean.

• Parents will appreciate being made aware of steps taken by the school to promote good IAQ. Some parents may even be able to contribute expertise to the school’s IAQ efforts.

The IAQ kit includes a brief six-page background document that briefly defines IAQ, potential IAQ problems, as well as solutions. The EPA IAQ management plan calls on the school or district IAQ coordinator to distribute this document to team members.

In addition, the kit contains background materials tailored to specific school personnel, including administrators, food service personnel, health professionals, teachers, maintenance personnel responsible for HVAC systems, custodial work, waste management and other maintenance tasks. Checklists for each of these groups of people accompany each background document.

The kit asks the IAQ coordinator to distribute the backgrounders and checklists to appropriate personnel, to follow up to make sure that everyone completes a checklist, and finally to conduct an informal assessment of the school facilities using the information garnered from the completed checklists.

The kit also provides tools designed to help the IAQ coordinator and school officials diagnose and resolve specific IAQ problems.

The diagnostic regimen includes a handful of simple keys:

• Are symptoms being experienced by a wide number of students, teachers, and staff?

• Do symptoms disappear when affected people leave school?

• Have people experienced symptoms all of a sudden after some kind of change, such as sealing the floor in the gymnasium?

• Do people that suffer from allergies and asthma tend to have reactions indoors as opposed to out of doors?

• Has a doctor diagnosed a student, staffer, or teacher as suffering from an indoor air problem?

The EPA materials go on to discuss a host of practical solutions to common IAQ problems. According to the agency, finding and managing the source of the pollution with better exhaust of ventilation procedures, exposure controls will solve many problems. Sometimes specific air-cleaning solutions and tools may become necessary. In a few cases, solutions will require the expertise of specialists.

The materials also describe an effective communications plan to guide school officials wrestling with mild or severe IAQ problems.

There is much more information about managing IAQ in the EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools kit. Check out the EPA website to learn more.

EDITORS NOTE: Portions of this article have been adapted from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools Kit, including the IAQ Coordinator’s Guide. The guide and kit are available on the EPA’s web site:

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