Something in the Air

By Jessica Portner — May 01, 1998 7 min read
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Jessica Trahan would rather be hanging out with her friends at North Country Union High School than sitting on her living room couch plodding through math problems. But the 14-year-old freshman says school literally makes her sick.

“At first I thought, It’s a new school, I’m nervous. But I’d get constant sinus infections and headaches, and soon I couldn’t take it anymore,” says Jessica, who has been home-tutored at district expense ever since she fainted in class and was whisked to the hospital with a severe rash a few months ago. A family physician concluded the otherwise healthy teenager was allergic to something in the building, and he advised her not to venture back until the school’s air quality improves. She did go back—on a very limited basis—in March after the school made a few atmospheric adjustments.

Even in pristine, fresh-air locales like Jessica’s hometown of Newport, Vermont, students may be picking up more than facts and figures when they enter school buildings. Experts say the air quality inside the nation’s schools has deteriorated over the past several decades. They attribute the problem mainly to aging, tightly sealed buildings with antiquated ventilation systems and to newer, more potent chemicals being deployed by science students and maintenance crews. “Since the energy crisis in the 1970s, people just tightened up buildings to conserve energy, and because districts saw savings, they never opened schools back up again,” says John Guevin, a program analyst with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Forty-six percent of American schools have problems with indoor air quality or ventilation systems, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. Many older schools also have leaky roofs, and the resulting moisture can generate microbiological growth in the duct-work or humidifiers. Some newly constructed schools pose problems, too, because of the pollutants emitted by their synthetic building materials and furnishings.

“Things have gotten worse, and the problem is everywhere,” Guevin says.

Although science is still sketchy about whether exposure to indoor pollutants triggers serious health problems, Jessica Trahan’s mother, Cindy, has little doubt. Since her daughter collapsed at North Country High, she has become the unofficial environmental expert in her rural town. “Just take a deep breath,” she says, wincing as she steps into a classroom with a dozen sophomores at work. Though it is 25 degrees outside, the air inside the 30-year-old building is so muggy that some students are stripped down to T-shirts.

As is common with many older schools’ heating systems, when the outside temperature dips below 34 degrees, the ventilators stop taking in fresh air and simply heat the building’s recirculated air, according to the school’s maintenance supervisor.

“That means there’s nowhere for the bad air to go,” Cindy Trahan says. “There’s no escape.”

Trapped is exactly how Delores Petit felt when she worked as a school secretary at North Country, the only high school in the Orleans-Essex district. So in 1995, after more than a year on the job, she quit. The 45-year-old Petit suffered colds, debilitating migraine headaches, and frequent bouts of nausea and vomiting. All her symptoms would subside on weekends and during vacations. “Something was making me violently ill, and it had to do with the school,” says Petit, who has been diagnosed with chemical sensitivity and advised by her doctor not to re-enter the school. She now has a workers’ compensation claim pending against the 3,500-student district. “I want to be compensated for lost work,” she says. “I want the school cleaned up and my job back.”

Since Petit and another employee resigned with similar symptoms two years ago, the district has commissioned a battery of tests on the 150,000-square-foot school, which serves 1,050 students. Tests showed that the carbon dioxide levels in at least 10 of the school’s 75 classrooms were higher than the acceptable federal standard for adequate ventilation.

Though carbon dioxide—expelled through exhaling—is not hazardous, a high reading indicates inadequate circulation of fresh air, according to the EPA. And when ventilation is limited, hazardous chemicals can easily accumulate.

Tests of the school by independent environmental consultants found low levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, and styrene, a narcotic. Both chemicals are found in cleaning agents and other household materials. One test also showed evidence of carbon monoxide in the wing of the building near the auto shop, where students’ test-cars idle.

“There isn’t enough fresh air coming into the building, and so chemicals are lingering, and that’s what you have to be concerned about,” says Julius Anderson, vice president of Anderson Laboratories. The private lab in West Hartford, Vermont, reviewed various tests conducted on the building at Petit’s request. “Low levels of pollutants add up to a large toxic load,” Anderson explains.

Administrators agree that the U-shaped brick complex built in 1967 has some air-quality problems, and they have moved to correct them. The district improved the ventilation in the auto shop by opening the outside doors and limiting the number of cars running simultaneously. Though many chemicals were found at only very low levels, the maintenance crew has discontinued the use of dozens of potentially harmful ones. Officials have also installed a new computer-monitoring system to track carbon dioxide levels in trouble spots throughout the building.

Though they mandated these improvements, school leaders are reluctant to blame the illnesses of students and staff members on North Country’s indoor environment. “I’m not personally concerned about my health in this building,” says Arne Amaliksen, the high school’s business manager. A former chemist who worked at Dow Chemical Co., Amaliksen sees no imminent danger. “I’d bring my grandchildren in here,” he says.

Carol Bailey, the school nurse, is also skeptical. Since last August, 76 students and staff members have registered complaints in the school’s environmental log, citing headaches, eye irritations, and gastrointestinal distress. Though Bailey is sensitive to students’ aches and pains, she doubts that exposure to airborne contaminants is the sole cause. Peer pressure and the academic load make high school stressful, she says, zipping around a room full of ailing teenagers. “There are so many factors that you can’t say it’s all air-quality-related.”

Scientific research on the health consequences of exposure to indoor pollutants is relatively weak, environmental experts acknowledge. In the 1970s, the EPA identified asbestos and lead in school buildings as serious hazards, but many researchers later found that though the threat posed by asbestos in schools was minimal, removing the material—which releases it into the atmosphere—could cause more problems.

The changing population of a school makes it difficult to determine if pollutants are causing illnesses, says Kenneth Green, director of environmental studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute, a think tank based in Los Angeles. “It’s very hard to study because the health problems claimed could be caused by family stress, an allergy to a cleaning agent, or internal illnesses,” he says.

Faced with such limited knowledge, school systems are often cautious about spending money to fix things that may never cause any harm. But some are concerned that they will be held financially responsible if they fail to take action.

A 5th grade teacher in Mineral County, West Virginia, filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against her school board last year for failing to transfer her out of a classroom that she claims made her seriously ill. The teacher, who suffers from allergies to molds, says the Mineral County district failed to accommodate her under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. A judge ruled in favor of the school board last summer, but the teacher is appealing the decision.

Administrators nationwide say it would help them determine if and when to take action on air-quality problems if there were standards that specifically applied to schools. Work on such standards is under way at the federal level and in some states, but in the meantime, the EPA has teamed up with the National Education Association to dispense information to schools hungry for practical—and inexpensive—air-freshening tips. The NEA has sent out hundreds of “Tools for Schools Kits,” which discuss how to clean heating and cooling systems, eradicate everyday pollutants, and ventilate tightly sealed buildings.

But for some school systems, fixing the problem may require an overhaul of inefficient ventilation systems. And that is costly. Air-quality engineers estimate the cost of a new system at about $500,000 per school, depending on its size.

North Country High is scheduled to begin revamping its ventilation system this summer. District officials here have committed $300,000 from a bond passed in 1996 to the project. But school leaders recognize that it could cost an additional $1.5 million to outfit the whole building with a workable heating and cooling system.

Amaliksen, the school’s business manager, says that convincing this poor, rural community to front the school the extra bond money may be a hard sell. “We believe an upgrade is needed, but this community can’t afford any more,” he says, taking a carbon dioxide reading in his office. Luckily, he says, “this is not a problem that needs emergency measures. It’s not panicville.”


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