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Cranky Students? It Might Be The Air, Researcher Says

A longtime researcher on class size has stumbled across what may be a compelling health argument for giving students more breathing room in school.

A 1999 study led by Charles M. Achilles, a professor of education at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich., examined the air quality in 27 classrooms in six urban grade schools and found that the average carbon dioxide levels were markedly higher in classrooms with 20 or more pupils, compared with those having 17 or fewer children.

Mr. Achilles and his fellow researchers decided to look into the carbon dioxide issue after observing tired and irritable behavior in some of the larger classes they were studying for the Tennessee Student Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR, class-size experiment, the professor said.

"A discussion of the observations with an engineer elicited: ‘check the carbon dioxide levels,’" according to an abstract of the air-quality investigation published in the latest issue of the National Forum of Educational Administration and Supervision Journal, Volume 21, No. 2, 2004-05.

Carbon dioxide levels are related to the number of people in a space, and the gas accumulates without proper ventilation. At high levels, carbon dioxide causes drowsiness and lethargy and "could be detrimental to teaching and learning," according to the study.

All the schools studied used the same heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems. Taking six readings in the 27 rooms during two weeks in November 1999, the researchers found that all the rooms started out with approximately 600 to 700 parts per million of carbon dioxide. But by day’s end, the average level of the gas in classrooms with 17 or fewer students was 2,836 parts per million, compared with 4,181 parts per million in rooms with 20 or more students.

The equipment used to read the carbon dioxide levels was capable of taking measurements of up to 6,000 parts per million. "Some classrooms exceeded that reading," according to the journal article.

Mr. Achilles conceded that even large classes could achieve acceptable carbon dioxide levels when housed in larger, well-ventilated rooms. However, he said, "levels above 4,000 ppms stop children from learning."

And while the federal government sets carbon dioxide limits in workplaces for adults, "there are no standards for children," in schools, the professor said.

Suicide Statistics

A federal study using data from the 1980s and ’90s shows that white youngsters between the ages of 7 and 17 were nearly 1½ times more likely to commit suicide than to be victims of homicide in that period, while black youths were almost seven times more likely to be victims of homicide than to take their own lives.

Between 1981 and 1998, nearly 21,000 U.S. children ages 7 through 17 killed themselves, making suicide the fourth-leading cause of death for that age group, according to a March research bulletin from the U.S. Department of Justice’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.

Males were the victims in 78 percent of those suicides. In fact, 7- through 17-year-old boys in the United States were three times more likely than girls in the same age group to commit suicide, with 16,282 boys taking their own lives, compared with 4,493 girls.

See Also...

View the accompanying chart, "Suicide Trends."

American Indian youths were far more likely to commit suicide than young people of other races. Of the youth suicides in the age group examined, 86 percent were white, 9 percent were black, 2 percent were American Indian, and 2 percent were Asian.

However, the suicide rate for the American Indian youths was 57 per 1 million—almost twice the rate for white juveniles, who committed suicide at a rate of 31 per 1 million. The suicide rate for both black and Asian youths was 18 per 1 million.

Drug Warning

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is urging drug manufacturers to put new warning labels on popular antidepressant medications, and is warning doctors and consumers to watch for suicidal tendencies, worsening depression, and agitation in patients taking the drugs.Drug Warning: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is urging drug manufacturers to put new warning labels on popular antidepressant medications, and is warning doctors and consumers to watch for suicidal tendencies, worsening depression, and agitation in patients taking the drugs.

The warnings were issued March 22 in a public-health advisory. The FDA has been reviewing the results of antidepressant studies in children since last June, after an initial report on studies of Paxil, the brand name for paroxetine, and other such drugs that appeared to suggest an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and actions in the children given antidepressants.

There were no suicides in any of the trials. "However, it is not yet clear whether antidepressants contribute to the emergence of suicidal thinking and behavior," the agency warns in its advisory.

The FDA has asked manufacturers to change the labels of 10 drugs to include stronger cautions about the need to monitor patients for worsening depression and the emergence of suicidal ideation, or forming ideas about suicide. The drugs under review include bupropion, citalopram, fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, mirtazapine, nefazodone, paroxetine, sertraline, escitalopram, and venlafaxine.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Vol. 23, Issue 29, Page 12

Published in Print: March 31, 2004, as Health Update
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