School Air Quality Emerging Issue

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Columbia, Md--To maintain a healthy environment in schools, administrators must look beyond the threats posed by asbestos and radon and develop a comprehensive indoor-air-quality program, Maryland school officials were told here last week.

Experts taking part in a seminar organized by the state department of education said that energy-conscious school construction in the 1970's, coupled with the lack of federal safe-air standards for children, have made indoor air quality the emerging catchall environmental issue for school districts.

Although asbestos and radon are among the best-known and deadliest indoor air pollutants, other contaminants--such as the fumes from formaldehyde in a new carpet--could cause discomfort, and possibly ill-health, for many students and school workers, the experts said.

The air-supply systems of energy-efficient schools built during the 1970's often allow less air to flow into and circulate within a building, they said, trapping unhealthy fumes indoors and providing poor ventilation for fresh air.

In addition, they noted, many common school supplies and building products give off potentially toxic fumes and gases. And studies have found that indoor pollutant levels frequently exceed standards set for the out-of-doors.

But despite evidence that children may be especially susceptible to the health risks associated with such indoor air pollution, the ex4perts said, school officials have received little guidance from the federal government.

Existing safe-air standards were designed to protect healthy, adult workers, they said, and no standards now exist for children in school buildings.

'Proactive' Steps

Even without federal mandates or guidelines, those attending the seminar here were urged to closely monitor the health side-effects of all products in their buildings. Health experts said they wanted to avoid the kind of public concern over school-building safety created by the asbestos crisis.

"The asbestos problem crept up on the education administration in this country," said Allen Abend, director of school facilities for the state department of education. "What we're trying to do here is to be proactive."

"Without these programs in place, a lot of money is misspent on calming people's fears," said Mr. Abend.

And, unlike asbestos control, he said, improving indoor air quality in schools can be accomplished through relatively inexpensive measures.

Children at Greater Risk

The higher health risk children face from exposure to indoor pollutants, speakers said, means that schools must take a leading role in promoting indoor air quality. Children can be more easily affected by contaminants, they said, because their metabolic rates are higher and they breathe in more air proportionately than do adults.

In addition, the experts said, chil8dren are not always able to express how they feel. Special-education students, they warned, could be especially sensitive to indoor air quality.

Maryland is one of several states giving increased attention to the problem. In California, for example, school officials have been prohibited since June from purchasing art supplies that contain toxic or carcinogenic substances for elementary-school students.

The state's department of education has circulated a list of approved art materials, and is developing asimilar list of science supplies.

The federal government may also be poised to play a larger role.

Robert B. Axelrad, director of the indoor air staff of the Environmental Protection Agency's office of air and radiation, said the epa would soon be taking a closer look at indoor air pollution. And bills have been introduced in both chambers of the Congress that would allocate $50- million to states over five years for the assessment of indoor air quality and control of pollutants.

'Sick Building' Syndrome

Health and environmental experts said that in addition to asbestos and radon, tobacco smoke, formaldehyde, other volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and dioxide, allergens, and room temperature affect indoor air quality.

Many common products, such as art and science supplies, furniture made of pressed particle board, and building materials, could emit fumes, smells, or gases that could adversely effect school occupants.

In buildings with poor indoor air quality, said Rebecca Bascom, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, occupants could suffer from the "sick building syndrome"--eye, ear, and throat irritations, sometimes combined with fatigue, dizziness, and nausea.

To prevent that short-term syndrome, as well as long-term effects--such as lung cancer--of some types of indoor air pollution, Dr. Bascom and other experts here advised school officials to conduct a thorough survey of their facilities.

Administrators should look particularly at the quality of their air-supply system and its ductwork, note how potentially toxic supplies are stored and used, and see if students or school workers are experiencing any continuing discomfort in the building, speakers suggested.

"Some of the worst exposure can come from materials that students are working with," said Ronald LeClair, supervisor of the public-sector division in the Maryland Department of Licensing and Regulation.

The experts recommended that districts remove or substitute for materials that contribute to indoor air problems, restrict the use of products that contain contaminants to periods when the least number of people will be exposed, and educate students and staff members about the sources and effects of pollutants.

In November, the Maryland Department of Education released a booklet on the issue. Copies of "Indoor Air Quality" are available from the department's office of school facilities at 200 West Baltimore Street, Baltimore, Md. 21201.

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