For roughly 180 days in every county in North Carolina, children and teachers spend the better part of their day inside a public school classroom. And in those halls of learning, the air students and staff breathe could be making them chronically ill.
Fifteen years ago, the federal government reported that more than half the nation's schools had poor indoor air quality, and the air is still subpar in many places. Dilapidated, old buildings can contain asbestos or lead. Newly constructed buildings are tightly sealed to save energy, but those efficiencies also restrict ventilation and airflow. Synthetic building materials and furnishings can offgas, meaning they can release chemicals into the air.
In crowded classrooms, indoor air can be more polluted than the air children breathe on the playground during recess. "Indoor levels of air pollutants can be two to five times higher, and occasionally 100 times higher, than outdoor levels," writes the Environmental Protection Agency.
The main pollutants vary, and according to the EPA, can include mold, dust mites, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, pesticides, radon, other volatile organic compounds (formaldehyde, solvents, cleaning agents) and asbestos.
Bad air can worsen respiratory and chronic illnesses in students and staff, and include symptoms like nausea, eye and skin irritation, headaches, vomiting and the onset or severity of asthma. These ailments can result in lowered performance levels and missed school.
State environmental officials rarely inspect schools for air quality, and instead primarily respond to complaints. The N.C. Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch investigates these complaints and administers the state's Air Quality program.
David Lipton, an industrial hygiene consultant with the OEEB recently worked with Chapel Hill's Ephesus Elementary School to reduce the amount of indoor mold after a parent whose child was fighting chronic upper respiratory illnesses called him.
Conducting mold tests are complex; epidemiologists haven't determined safe exposure levels of mold spores, and data can vary dramatically by time of day, season, activities of indoor occupants, and wind levels.
Lipton notes that not mold, but crowding, clutter and dirt are the primary causes of bad indoor air.
"For the last 10 to 15 years when people hear mold they get freaked out. Occupants see mold and think it is the automatic cause of their illness, but there are other factors you can't see that could be causing your illness," said Lipton.
Lipton advised Ephesus Elementary School, which has 435 students, to vigorously clean and declutter the building. An act as simple as removing area rugs could improve indoor air quality.
"With every school the custodial cleaning is a big issue, and it's first thing to get cut," Lipton said. "It is important that school districts recognize the importance of custodial activities in terms of occupant health."
Lipton says teacher and staff can set cleanliness examples for students and are just as crucial to an environmentally healthy school as proper air supply and ventilation. "This is a holistic process, and it requires staff and teachers to get involved," he says.
How clean is your school? Well, that might be hard to determine. In North Carolina, each region's environmental health specialist is required to do a yearly walk-through of area schools. However, these inspection rules haven't been updated since 1992.
"Inspecting schools is not a top priority," said Lipton. "And the rules they have to work with are woefully inadequate."
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction's School Rules Review Committee has drafted proposed amendments that it will present before the Environmental Management Commission. These amendments include requiring the schools to place an inspection card (like those you find at restaurants) A being highest, C or less being classified as unsatisfactory in a conspicuous location where the public can view it.
Ed Norman, environmental program supervisor with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources says the soonest the rules could take effect is November. If there is a lot of pushback, the rules may not be enacted until summer 2011.
On a federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency developed the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools Program to encourage schools to improve their air. However, the program is voluntary. Southeast Tools for Schools program coordinator Lashon Blakely says only six North Carolina public school systems have enrolled in Tools for Schools. Wake County is the only school system in the Triangle to adopt the program.
In the program guidance, the EPA suggests that schools keep buses away from air intake vents. In addition, schools should use low-volatile organic compound paints—and paint only when the building is empty. Food should be kept in airtight containers, carpets should be cleaned regularly and animals should not be allowed into the classroom unless they are guide dogs.
Schools struggling with funding and staffing shortfalls—while trying to meet educational requirements—worry about adding more to their workload. "One of the biggest challenges we face is the fear factor," Blakely says. "Initially it takes work to get the program going, but it's not as difficult as schools would make it seem."