Students, on average, spend 90% of their school days indoors. With the continued degradation of school district facilities and infrastructure, there is no doubt about the effect these conditions have on student health, cognition, and academic performance. Studies conducted by national and independent public health agencies have shown that poor building health can directly impact student absenteeism and the effectiveness of their learning environments. Read on the learn more about the indoor environmental conditions affecting students and how indoor air quality improvements are essential to reducing student absenteeism.
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In school buildings, indoor environmental conditions are affected by multiple factors, including; occupant density, temperature, lighting conditions, auditory conditions, and indoor air quality. With classroom environments experiencing high-occupant density compared to office spaces, pre-existing indoor environmental quality issues are amplified. The recent pandemic has brought to light how K-12 classrooms' poor indoor air quality is a crucial driver for the spread of illnesses and subsequent absenteeism.
With nearly 1 in 13 school-age children suffering from asthma and 40% of students experiencing seasonal allergies, indoor air quality concerns are moving beyond the need for viral mitigation and towards overall school building health. Unbeknown to most, classrooms are often riddled with indoor air pollutants such as dust mites, mold, allergens, bacteria, viruses, gases, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These airborne contaminants can aggravate pre-existing allergies, asthma, and in some cases, cause respiratory issues to develop amongst building occupants. Thereby, making indoor air quality improvements in schools is critical to sustaining students' overall health, safety, and well-being.
According to research conducted by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air quality in schools is impacted by four primary sources resulting in the creation of various air pollutants.
A significant component of indoor air quality in schools is the impact of outdoor environmental conditions. For schools located in regions of high-traffic congestion, manufacturing, or industrial parks, increased levels of pollution, CO2 emissions, and airborne particulate matter can enter the building. This ambient outdoor air pollution can enter the building through opened windows, doors, and even HVAC "fresh air" intakes.
HVAC systems provide essential indoor environmental controls such as heating, cooling, and humidity reduction in school buildings. In addition, HVAC systems also play a significant role in indoor air quality management through air exchanges, ventilation, and air filtration. Therefore when HVAC systems in schools are unmaintained or fall into disrepair, they can rapidly become the root cause of indoor air quality issues.
The most common issue of not maintaining HVAC systems is mold growth within the ductwork, air handlers, coils, and drip pans. When unmitigated, mold can spread throughout an HVAC system and into various parts of the facility. Known sources of HVAC system mold growth are high regional humidity, interior water damage, and poor ventilation when unmaintained HVAC air filters may also not be frequently replaced.
Overused and clogged HVAC filters can reduce system efficiency, air distribution, and air exchanges, hindering air filtration. According to the National Air Filtration Association (NAFA), the CDC, and the EPA, schools are recommended to replace HVAC filters with ones rated MERV 8 or MERV 13. Although, the frequency of HVAC filter replacement is dependent on indoor environmental conditions, building occupancy, and system run-time. Schools are recommended to follow a 3 or 6-month HVAC filter replacement schedule.
Some of the most prevalent airborne contaminants in school buildings are VOCs and harmful gases such as formaldehyde. A contributor to these airborne contaminants includes building materials, furnishings, fabrics, and pressed-wood materials. According to the EPA, formaldehyde in its gaseous form can be identified by its "pungent smell" and at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million), building occupant symptoms such as "water eyes, nausea, and a burning sensation in the eyes or throat."
Long-term VOC exposure is a primary concern for sustained student and faculty health for schools. In classroom environments, VOCs are introduced through multiple sources, including; dry-erase markers, printers/toner, adhesives, paints, cleaning chemicals, personal care products, pesticides, and aerosol air fresheners. Additionally, with the post-pandemic heightened disinfection protocols in K-12 schools, the use of disinfection chemicals and multi-purpose cleaners subsequently increases the creation of VOCs within these indoor environments. Concerning the health effects of VOCs, the American Lung Association has stated, "breathing VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, causing difficulty breathing, nausea, as well as damage to the central nervous system and other organs."
Of all the lessons schools have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the one that has remained top-of-mind is that students, teachers, staff, and visitors alike are the primary source of biological contaminants in these indoor environments. Whether it is bacteria, the common flu, or pandemic diseases such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus, building occupants can cause variable transmission within schools. Per CDC guidance, the transmission of biological contaminants can be rapidly reduced through strong disinfection regiments, air filtration, and building ventilation.
Outside of the home, students spend most of their time within the confines of school buildings. Recent occurrences have brought to light the chronic issues of outdated, overcrowded classrooms and the aging infrastructure of school districts across the nation. However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, aging school buildings have been affecting student and faculty health. In the United States, public schools are widely known for their over-occupied classroom environments. This is a direct result of the consolidation of public schools in the U.S, inverting the ratio of schools to population. In the span of 80 years between 1936 and 2016, public schools have decreased from 250,000 to 98,000, while the U.S population has jumped from 128.1 million to 323.1 million.
The associated effects of consolidating schools and forcing more students and faculty into the same buildings increases the rate of health issues present in these environments. By stretching district resources thin, schools cannot monitor indoor environmental conditions appropriately and make the necessary changes for student health. For example, in the winter of 2016, Millis, Massachusetts, temporarily closed its 62-year-old elementary school after air quality testing indicated high levels of trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene. Through what is known as vapor intrusion, these VOCs, trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) can cause eye irritation, respiratory symptoms, and neurophysiologic effects with acute, high-level exposure.
With the complexities of maintaining school infrastructure and the historical lack of adequate funding, school districts have been unable to make the necessary facility improvements and infrastructure updates to create healthy indoor environments for learning. Studies have shown the associated health effects of poor indoor environmental quality in schools have resulted in millions of missed school days each year. According to 2018 data from the National Center for Health Statistics, respiratory illnesses amongst children such as asthma contributes to over 13.8 million absences per year.
Without a doubt, the quality of indoor environments within schools affects the health and safety of students. Therefore, it is essential to take the greatest step toward healthier indoor environments through indoor air quality improvements. The most effective method for IAQ improvements in school facilities is performing HVAC maintenance and installing induct air purification systems.
With the high occupancy of school interior spaces, HVAC systems play a critical role in distributing fresh air, reducing CO2, filtering out airborne pollutants, and maintaining comfortable ambient temperatures. By installing HVAC induct air purification technology, such as ActivePure, schools can leverage their existing building infrastructure to deliver clean air to every space. The unique properties of active air purification technologies such as ActivePure enable HVAC systems to improve energy efficiency while dramatically reducing common airborne contaminants.
The second key method to improving IAQ in schools is portable air purifiers. Packed with advanced and trusted air quality technologies, portable air purifiers are affordable solutions that can deliver rapid IAQ improvements. Recommended by the CDC, portable air purifiers featuring True HEPA filters can be used to supplement the lack of ventilation and air exchanges within windowless classrooms that don't have sufficient HVAC coverage.
As school districts search for solutions to maintain student health and reduce absenteeism, they are faced with the challenge of finding a solution that meets the unique IAQ needs of their facilities. With our expertise, Sanalife can develop end-to-end IAQ solutions that cover all areas of HVAC and portable air purification. Our team understands the importance of tailoring solutions to meet the individual usage, IAQ issues, and occupancy levels of school interior spaces. Contact our team today to learn how we can provide your district with 24/7 indoor air quality protection.
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