Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in Schools: Student Health and Performance Ava Montini July 28, 2023

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in Schools: Student Health and Performance

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a critical yet often overlooked aspect of educational environments. The quality of air inside schools has a direct impact on student health and academic performance. In this blog, we will explore the significance of IAQ in schools and how it influences students’ well-being and learning outcomes.

To comprehend the importance of IAQ, it’s crucial to understand its components. IAQ refers to the condition of the air within buildings, including its purity, temperature, humidity, and ventilation. 

Sources of Indoor Air Pollution in Schools

Sources of indoor air pollution in schools can vary, but here are some common ones:

  1. Building Materials: Some building materials used in schools, such as certain types of paint, adhesives, and flooring materials, can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to indoor air pollution
  2. Cleaning Products: Cleaning chemicals, including disinfectants, floor cleaners, and aerosol sprays, often contain harmful chemicals that can release fumes and particles into the air, affecting indoor air quality.
  3. HVAC Systems: Poorly maintained heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can accumulate dust, mould, and other contaminants, which are then circulated throughout the building, compromising air quality.
  4. Mould and Moisture: Moisture problems, such as leaks or high humidity levels, can lead to the growth of mould and mildew. These can release spores and mycotoxins into the air, posing health risks.
  5. Pests and Pest Control: The presence of pests like rodents and insects in schools can introduce allergens and contaminants. The use of pesticides and insecticides for pest control can also contribute to indoor air pollution.
  6. Outdoor Air Pollution: Pollutants from outdoor sources, such as vehicle emissions and industrial activities, can infiltrate schools through poorly sealed windows, doors, or ventilation systems, compromising indoor air quality.
  7. Combustion Sources: Schools with combustion appliances, such as furnaces, boilers, or stoves, can emit pollutants such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and particulate matter, which can be harmful when not adequately vented.
  8. Personal Care Products: Students and staff using personal care products, such as perfumes, colognes, and hair sprays, can contribute to indoor air pollution by releasing VOCs.
  9. Classroom Supplies: Various classroom supplies, including art materials, science lab chemicals, and glues, may contain hazardous substances that can release fumes or particles when used.
  10. Outdoor Contaminants: Pollen, allergens, and pollutants brought in from outdoors on clothing, shoes, or through open doors and windows can contribute to indoor air pollution.

It’s essential for schools to identify and mitigate these sources of indoor air pollution through adequate ventilation, regular maintenance, proper cleaning protocols, and the use of low-emission materials and products.

Impact of Poor IAQ on Students

Poor IAQ can have severe consequences for student health. It contributes to respiratory issues like asthma and allergies, increases the risk of infections and illnesses, and hampers cognitive function. Students exposed to poor IAQ may experience difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and a decline in overall well-being.

Student Health

According to the EPA, the term “sick building syndrome” (SBS) describes situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.

Sick building syndrome has been reported by students in schools with poor IAQ. It is a condition that impacts employees or students that spend a lot of time indoors and is caused by unhealthy or stressful factors, i.e. poor ventilation. Illnesses caused by poor IAQ have resulted in more sick days, from school, due to respiratory-related health problems.

Cognitive Development and Academic Performance

Lack of adequate ventilation has been associated with poor cognitive development, especially in primary school age groups. An experiment was conducted through a Texas school district to improve the air quality condition in schools, which determined that IAQ improvements resulted in improved standardized test performance.

In another experiment, the average ventilation improvement project improved math and reading scores by 0.07 standard deviations (SDS) and 0.11 SDS, increasing the probability of passing these tests by 2–3%.

Increased Risks of Asthma and Respiratory Issues

Respiratory problems such as asthma are also aggravated due to air pollution in schools. A study has shown the possibility of reducing asthma incidents from 16% to 13% among children by simply applying filters for PM 2.5 in the classrooms.

Other respiratory health effects include:

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Airway inflammation & irritation
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Lung damage

Simple Solutions to Help Manage IAQ in the Classroom

Mechanical Ventilation

Mechanical ventilation uses ducts and fans to draw in and distribute fresh air, and can even exhaust air from specific areas. In schools, mechanical ventilation uses HVAC systems or unit ventilators. To further enhance ventilation levels, air purification systems can be installed within existing ventilation systems or unit ventilators to achieve better air quality and reduce indoor air pollution levels. 

Natural Ventilation

Simply opening a window or door encourages better airflow within an enclosed room. A study completed in 2017 proves a significant improvement in IAQ, specifically CO2 levels in a room with a group of 4-6 persons, by simply opening a window.

Additionally, cross ventilation is a highly effective method of promoting good airflow. Allowing a breeze to enter, flow through and exit within an enclosed area. This ventilation method encourages continuous airflow by pulling air from openings on one side of a building and through to the other.

Regular Cleaning & Dusting

Preventing any buildup of animal dander, dust mite matter, and pollen can improve indoor air quality. The American Lung Association recommends incorporating dusting into your regular cleaning routine, which can reduce the amount of dust and improve overall indoor air quality in your home.

Natural Cleaning Products

Substitute bi-products with natural-based products for cleaning agents to reduce indoor VOCs. A study conducted in Brisbane, Australia, in over 25 primary schools – to identify the VOCs’ sources – deduced that chemical-based cleaning products alone caused 41% of indoor VOCs. The synthetic fragrances found in cleaning and maintenance products contribute to air contamination.

Building Design 

The design of school and childcare facilities can contribute to minimizing children’s exposure to air pollution while onsite. This may entail locating the most frequented rooms or areas as far away from road traffic as possible, shielding the playground behind buildings, walls or green infrastructure (i.e. using plants), and allowing natural ventilation patterns that promote pollutant dispersion. Green infrastructure can filter some air pollutants and alter the airflow — thus changing pollution concentrations in local microenvironments.