Indoor Air Quality
"The school board really didn't take us seriously'' before the engineer's findings, Delgado-Brito says. Some board members attributed the teachers' complaints to smoking, general poor health, or the demands of the job. The outside study "gave us credibility,'' Delgado-Brito says. Now that the problems have been documented, the district is spending more than $5- million to repair the ventilation systems in two schools.
Health experts now believe that indoor air pollution presents one of the country's largest public-health hazards. By some estimates, indoor pollutants cause more than half of all minor illnesses.
For teachers, the risks from bad air are often magnified because of the way schools are built and operated. In addition to dust, pollen, bacteria, tobacco smoke, and all the usual unseen impurities, schools contain additional sources of contamination, such as science labs, vocational shops, and art classrooms. Even idling school buses can contribute to poor air quality if exhaust fumes get sucked into the building.
The problem can be further exacerbated by poor air circulation in schools. Air often circulates through several unit ventilators in each classroom rather than through a central system, and problems can develop if the ventilators are not working together. Teachers often turn the units in their room on or off for temperature control without realizing they may be cutting off a needed source of fresh air. "Teachers need to work cooperatively with maintenance so the whole system is satisfactory,'' says David Mudarri of the EPA.
Schools built in the 1970s, when sealed windows were the norm, are among the worst offenders. Ventilation systems in these sealed buildings need regular attention, but often they are neglected. Worse, some new modular school buildings aren't ventilated at all.
To minimize problems, teachers working in vocational shops should be sure the ventilation systems in their rooms work properly and are not blocked by equipment or furniture. And chemistry teachers can reduce contamination caused by lab experiments if they use common sense and follow proper disposal procedures. Phyllis Barnhart, science coordinator for West Virginia's public schools, urges teachers to weigh the benefits of an experiment against the pollution and health risks it will produce. She also recommends that teachers have their students conduct smaller-scale experiments--so-called "microscale'' chemistry--which are cheaper and produce less waste.
Darryl Alexander, occupational health and safety coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers, suggests that teachers concerned about air quality problems in their schools keep track of general health complaints, including mood swings, lack of concentration, and lethargy, among themselves and their students. If patterns emerge, such as large numbers of illnesses in certain classrooms or at certain times, teachers should present the information to school administrators and press them to take action.
Booklets, fact sheets, guidance materials, and other information about indoor air quality are available from the EPA's Indoor Air Division (ANR-445), Office of Air and Radiation, USEPA, Washington, DC 20460. To speak with an air quality expert, call the regional EPA office in your area. The agency also publishes a directory of state indoor-air specialists. Information may also be available from local health or environmental agencies.