healthy schools

Indoor Air Quality in Schools – Concerns and Need for Low-Cost Solutions

By Richard Corsi

University of Texas at Austin IAQ Research Team Goes Back to High School.  From left to right: Associate Professor Atila Novoselac, researcher Sarah Wu, Professor Kerry Kinney, Professor Richard Corsi, and Research Engineer Neil Crain.

University of Texas at Austin Research Team Goes Back to High School. From left to right: Associate Professor Atila Novoselac, Researcher Sarah Wu, Professor Kerry Kinney, Professor Richard Corsi, and Research Engineer Neil Crain.

I am excited to be directing a new multi-year U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant related to Healthy Schools titled, Healthy High School PRIDE (Partnership in Research on InDoor Environments). My team is focusing on high schools, a relatively under-studied school environment with numerous data gaps.

Evidence has mounted regarding the contributions of poor indoor air quality and inadequate classroom ventilation toward student illnesses, absenteeism, and decreases in academic performance. Teachers are also affected, with higher rates of work-related upper-respiratory problems compared to the rest of the working population. Importantly, this problem has not been improving and there is a growing base of literature that suggests that we are failing our children in an environment that is critical to both their health and future success.

Our team  will complete detailed studies of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system performance and air flow characteristics in classrooms, a topic of great importance with respect to student health, comfort, and performance, and one that is often oversimplified. We will characterize HVAC system performance and increase knowledge of how HVAC operation affects pollutant migration through both occupied and hidden spaces of buildings that can be sources of pollution.

Most homeowners, businesses, and school districts dispose of their used HVAC filters in the trash bin and they are ultimately buried in landfills.  Our team sees them as valuable biological samplers.  We will collect used HVAC filters from high schools and perform analyses to characterize microorganisms that were in classroom air.

My students and I have been exploring oxygen-containing compounds that I hypothesize are in-part responsible for upper airway irritations that can distract students in classroom environments. These compounds are often overlooked in studies of indoor air quality in schools, and their abundance and sources will be central to our study of high schools.

Most school districts have budget constraints that preclude an ability to significantly improve indoor environmental conditions in classrooms.  I am excited that our team will also test low-cost engineering solutions to indoor environmental quality issues in participating schools.   Our findings should be of value to both participating schools, and hopefully school districts across the country.

Our research will also be a learning experience. High school students will complete workshops related to indoor environmental quality and team-based projects on indoor air quality at the University of Texas at Austin.  And Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) teachers at our participating high schools will use our study as examples for discussions in their classrooms related to indoor environmental science and engineering, and data analysis and visualization methods.

It actually feels great to be going back to high school!

About the Author: Richard L. Corsi is the E.C.H. Bantel Professor for Professional Practice and Chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.  He teaches courses related to fluid mechanics and indoor air quality, and has completed extensive research related to the sources, chemistry, and passive control of indoor air pollution.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Make Healthy Schools Day April 8 A Day of Action!

Providing every child with a quality education is a high priority. Of course we want our kids to learn, grow, and be successful. But the reality is that many schools are older buildings with indoor air quality problems that can be fixed, sometimes with easy to use EPA tools that can help student performance at the same time. One in 10 school-age kids have asthma and some schools can have issues with mold, radon and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).) The evidence shows that health and test scores can improve if more schools put in place EPA’s Tools for Schools, which includes a Framework for Effective School Indoor Air Quality Management.

In fact, last week I attended the National Green Schools Conference where I talked with Dave Hill from Blue Valley School District in Kansas. He told me how their students have shown dramatic increases in math and reading test scores over the 12 years using these tools. I also heard from other local and state leaders about how more schools should use these and other EPA tools to improve children’s health, prevent pollution, cut carbon pollution, save energy, reduce pesticide use, and improve test scores! More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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IAQ Management: Essential for a Healthy School Environment

By Richard Middleton

During my tenure as the superintendent of the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, TX, I’ve had one goal in mind: provide the best, most nurturing learning environments to my students that I possibly can. And after 21 years of doing just that, I can tell you that this simply cannot be done without addressing indoor air quality (IAQ).

IAQ is one of those issues that can too easily be pushed aside and minimized by one of many other concerns that school districts have. But, in my opinion, it’s one of the most important things that a school district can do to ensure that their students are healthy, learning and thriving – and that the teachers are too! And just a few, simple changes in maintenance practices can make a huge difference.

For example, in our district we were bogged down by clutter. We had cluttered classrooms and storage areas full of items that were just collecting dust. It was so bad that our cleaning crews couldn’t even navigate through the classrooms around the clutter to properly clean! By simply eliminating the clutter and removing carpeting in classrooms and hallways and following EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Program guidance we improved IAQ and saw dramatic decreases in absenteeism and visits to the school nurse that have been sustained over time. It didn’t take much – but it did take making a commitment to improving IAQ and sticking to it.

And for those school districts out there that don’t feel like they have the expertise or resources to begin the process of developing an IAQ management plan, the IAQ Tools for Schools Program is there to help you every step of the way. It provides help with IAQ planning and management tools and connects you with peers and mentors so you can learn from each other’s experiences. In particular, I would encourage school districts at the beginning of the IAQ management process to attend the 2011 IAQ Tools for Schools National Symposium. It’s an invaluable resource and one of the best things that we did while developing our IAQ management program.

About the Author: Richard Middleton has devoted his career to the education and betterment of children. For the past 21 years he has served as the superintendent of the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. North East Independent School District is a recipient of EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools National Excellence Award, which is presented to school districts that have shown exceptional commitment to good IAQ management in schools.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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