Why schools should breathe easier

There are over 95,000 public schools in the United States. They vary widely in number, average age and student population, but one thing is certain – the quality of the air the students breathe day-in and day-out affects their performance, their health and their development.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 14 million students — over a quarter of all students — attend schools considered below standard or dangerous, and the air in nearly 15,000 U.S. schools is unfit to breathe.

With facilities including gyms, locker rooms, chemistry labs, swimming pools, woods and metals shops and cafeterias, schools face a much wider variety of possible indoor air quality problems than typical adult workplaces.

Administrators and educators are increasingly aware of the need to maintain a healthy indoor environment. And, according to a national 2007 survey published in the Journal of School Health, more than half of states currently provide funding for improved indoor air quality.

Let’s consider the impact that indoor air can have on schools and the children they serve. A 2005 survey of current research by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that “higher indoor concentrations of NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) have reduced school attendance, and low ventilation rates have been linked to reduced performance.”

A 2005 study by Palatino & Company found that improved indoor air conditions resulted in a 15 percent drop in absenteeism and a 5 percent improvement in student test scores. A study of schools in the District of Columbia and Chicago similarly reported a 3 percent to 4 percent improvement in standardized test scores due to improvement indoor air quality conditions.

But how much will improving indoor air quality cost school districts, many of which already face significant budget challenges? The two options available to school districts – remediation and building new, green facilities – both carry costs, but those costs are ultimately outweighed by their advantages.

One common indoor air contaminant that can be simply remediated without significantly altering existing facilities is mold.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that increased mold in schools is often “linked to changes in building construction practices during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.”

The good news is that mold infestations can usually be corrected by working with qualified environmental testing contractors.

The process typically begins with a mold inspection and indoor air quality audit to determine the amount of mold you have and at what levels it is circulating through the air. Samples are then tested, and “negative air machines,” which filter out dirty air, may then be used to clean the existing indoor air. Air ducts and doors are sealed off to prevent the spread of airborne mold during the remediation process.

A certified industrial hygienist or other IAQ consultant will usually plan, manage and supervise this process and propose ways to assure that mold doesn’t return, which may include increasing ventilation, improving filtration, or rerouting drainage to stop moisture from invading vulnerable areas.

An October 2006 study conducted for the U.S. Green Building Council, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Lung Association and the Federation of American Scientists, persuasively argues that between utility costs, reductions in costs related to flu, colds and asthma and employee recruitment and retention, green schools can achieve savings of over 20 times the costs of building green. Green building, while sometimes thought to be more expensive than traditional building methods, easily recoups the investment over time.

School districts have, however, been slow in making improved IAQ, green practices and green building options a priority.

Of the nine buildings recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified in New Hampshire, only two are schools serving K-12 students. Frustrating statistics such as these should not leave school administrators discouraged, since any steps taken to improve the health of students and faculty are imperative to the ultimate goal of getting all New Hampshire schools to go green.

Scott H. Lawson is president of The Scott Lawson Companies, Concord. He can be contacted at 603-228-3610 or at scott@slgl.com.