Air Rights

August 01, 2002 3 min read
Educators take action against indoor pollution.

Katherine Anderson, once a robust college basketball player, thinks teaching has destroyed her health. The 26-year-old kindergarten instructor in Milford, Connecticut, struggles with ailments ranging from sinus infections and dizziness to menstrual abnormalities and insomnia. And, as she tearfully told her state legislature in a hearing earlier this year, she blames the poor indoor air quality in her aging school.

“Prior to teaching,” she said, “I rarely had a cold, much less a prolonged illness.” But once she began working at John F. Kennedy Elementary, located next to a swamp in a building with a flat, leaky roof and an obsolete ventilation system, her immune system weakened. Last November, a “mystery smell” forced Anderson and some of her colleagues to evacuate their classrooms for two days. When the subsequent investigation provided no explanation, the teachers returned. But afterward, Anderson’s health deteriorated significantly—requiring her to take five medications, including steroids, for a time. “My doctor believes that my body was being exposed to certain allergens within my working environment,” Anderson testified. Other teachers at her school also complained of unusual illnesses, she added.

Although awareness of poor-quality air is growing, it remains “one of the least recognized problems facing the education community,” argues John Lyon, a former manager of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Studies show that about half of the nation’s schools have environmental problems, such as mildew, that can pollute indoor air.

Bad air is good for no one, but teachers may be more at risk of developing health problems from it than their students, experts say. Darryl Alexander, associate for health and safety at the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., explains: “Many teachers work in a school for 30 years, while students come for just a few years, which has to be factored into measures of exposure.”

Classroom air quality began declining in the late 1970s when, in response to the national energy crisis, facilities planners tightly sealed buildings. Today, Alexander explains, the main problems are mold and water seeping into schools. Those problems are worsened, she notes, by schools’ difficulties maintaining old buildings on shrinking budgets. Furthermore, she says, “few districts have come up with a process for inspecting and for investigating complaints.”

School air-quality problems are particularly bad in the District of Columbia, New Orleans, and New York City, Alexander reports. In addition, she says, in Florida, schools built to standards designed for the Northeast have had “a dickens of a time controlling mold from humidity exaggerated by poor construction and the misplacement of vapor barriers.” And, in California and the Southwest, she observes, schools’ air conditioners, called “swamp coolers” because they circulate water, are “breeding grounds for mold.”

Over the past few years, some schools have taken steps to improve their facilities using “Tools for Schools,” a do-it-yourself air-quality inspection kit developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Educators from Fairgrounds Junior High School in Nashua, New Hampshire, for example, identified faulty renovations as the cause of several teachers’ health complaints in 1997, and the contractors repaired the school’s roof and ventilation system for free. Other organizations, including teachers’ unions, are pressuring state governments to set air-quality guidelines for schools.

Still, progress can be slow. Anderson’s testimony was part of the Connecticut Education Association’s latest effort to get the state to ban the construction of flat roofs, which retain water, on schools and impose federal standards for air quality. Bogged down with other issues, the legislature didn’t get around to voting on the bill—which would have required annual air—quality testing, yearly inspections of ventilation systems, and new state funds for school repairs-before the session ended in June. Undaunted, the CEA plans to push for the legislation again in the coming months. Meanwhile, Anderson’s principal has moved her to another classroom. If the change doesn’t help stabilize her condition, Anderson says, she’ll be forced to leave a job she loves.

—Charles S. Clark