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.

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