School Climate & Safety

EPA Pushing Improved Air Quality in Schools

By Joetta L. Sack — May 01, 2002 7 min read
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The fake-stucco facade and the outline of Guerrero Elementary School here give away its beginnings as a chain grocery store. Today, it houses model programs to help educate the community’s large populations of homeless and migrant children.

But it’s what can’t be seen that has earned this rather unorthodox school accolades from a federal agency. Guerrero Elementary has been cited as a model for meeting new voluntary air-quality guidelines for schools that were set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year.

Poor air quality in school facilities is a growing problem that is usually overlooked, EPA officials say, but that can have serious ramifications for the health of students and teachers.

What may be surprising is how many of the nation’s schools the EPA deems to have poor indoor-air quality: nearly half.

While pupils at Guerrero benefit from a state-of-the-art air-cleaning system, the air quality in many schools could be improved dramatically simply by replacing filters on heating and air-conditioning units on a regular basis.

EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman has made school air quality one of her priorities, and she recently visited several schools to publicize her agency’s efforts. The EPA has released a guide for schools that points out common, easy- to-fix problems, and the agency took part in School Building Day on April 19, a symposium at the National Building Museum in Washington that featured innovative school facilities practices.

Such attention could not come at a better time, some experts say.

With rates of asthma and other respiratory problems among children reaching record highs, more facility planners are focusing on air quality as they design and renovate schools. But with the many aging and unmaintained buildings still in use, it’s a daunting concern.

“A lot of districts are ignoring the problem,” particularly the underfunded urban districts where problems are most likely to arise, said Molly E. Smith, a vice president and architect with BPLW Architects and Engineers Inc., whose Mesa firm remodeled Guerrero Elementary School.

Nationally, about one in 13 students has asthma, and between 8,000 and 26,000 new cases of the potentially fatal condition are diagnosed in children each year.

But other health complaints can be traced to indoor air as well—from common colds and headaches to nausea and dizziness.

Common Irritants

Kevin Estepp, a former supervisor of heating and cooling systems for the Mesa district, said such problems caught his district’s attention several years ago, when he received e- mails from teachers describing overly lethargic students, and from school nurses reporting high rates of bloody noses and headaches. He investigated and concluded that the culprit was usually air-conditioning units that recirculated harmful air rather than pumping out clean air.

Airborne pollutants such as mold, dust mites, residue from cockroaches, and other allergens can trigger the respiratory symptoms of asthma and other health problems, while chemicals in cleaners and pesticides can be respiratory irritants.

“The worst problem is mold,” said Michelle Guarneiri, a marketing a public affairs specialist with the indoor-environments division of the EPA. “And most schools have mold, everywhere from Alaska to Florida.”

Mold can seep into buildings through rather routine and unnoticeable ways, and it is hard to detect. For instance, many schools have leaky roofs, a situation that leads to moisture, which in turn can lead to mold, Ms. Smith noted.

She recently visited a school that was using sprinklers to water its lawn. She followed the water and found that the sprinklers had splashed the sides of the building and created mold on the inside of the walls.

Moreover, the energy-efficiency goals of the 1970s hurt many school buildings’ air quality, Ms. Smith added. By lowering ceiling heights and sealing off windows, energy-conscious administrators may have inadvertently closed off or limited their buildings’ air circulation.

And the EPA says that some of the most common maintenance supplies—such as caulk, cleaners, paints, and adhesives—can emit high levels of harmful chemicals. Even using such supplies with low emissions can cause damage if they are used often enough.

Mesa’s Approach

So what’s a school facilities supervisor to do?

Over the past few years, Arizona’s 73,000-student Mesa district has been documenting illnesses and been studying the air quality in classrooms by measuring carbon monoxide, temperature, and humidity. Many classrooms showed high levels of carbon monoxide because of a lack of fresh air.

District officials knew that replacing the mechanical systems in each building to address the problems was out of the question. It would simply be too costly, they said.

“We had a lot of equipment, and it was impossible to change it, so we had to retrofit,” said David Peterson, the district’s operations manager.

Mr. Estepp decided to retrofit most of the district’s schools with air-filtration systems—steel boxes that are attached to air-conditioning units and through which clean air is circulated throughout a classroom. In particular, Mr. Estepp was concerned about the air quality in the district’s many portable classrooms, most of which were old, with inadequate heating and cooling systems.

Finding most of the models he studied to be too expensive or not powerful enough, he invented his own. (His product was so successful he later resigned from the district to start his own company and market the product.)

About 50 to 60 of the air-filtration devices have been installed in Mesa schools, Mr. Peterson said. The district wants to install several hundred more in coming years, costing about $200,000 to $300,000 total. Meanwhile, Guerrero Elementary, because it is so new, was one of the first buildings to have a comprehensive clean-air system that is now standard in newer Mesa schools. The school is also a model because it follows all the EPA’s guidelines for using and storing chemicals.

While the air filters carry a hefty price tag, top district officials were supportive, Mr. Peterson said, especially because lawsuits related to so-called sick buildings have become more common. “There’s a heightened awareness right now,” he said.

In this desert climate, keeping school facilities cool for most of the year is the biggest concern and can outweigh the steps needed to keep that air clean. But there are many ways, other than air conditioning, to help cool buildings, Ms. Smith of the architecture firm said.

She believes architects should use more “passive devices"—such as awnings and thicker walls—and more trees to help cool buildings. Then again, that’s not always easy, given districts’ limited budgets and great needs in facilities, Ms. Smith acknowledged.

“Architects are trying to do all that and still meet the budget,” she said, “and it’s really tough.”

Preventive Maintenance

Barbara C. Worth, an assistant director of the Council of Education Facility Planners International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., said the subject of indoor-air quality has piqued the interest of many of the group’s members. The council is collaborating with the EPA on the issue.

The group has co-hosted conferences with the federal agency and is working to publicize the need for clean air in schools. In February, the council endorsed the EPA guidelines.

The EPA has come under fire from business groups in the past for what many companies see as overregulation and overstatement of environmental problems. So far, though, school officials have not seemed to question the EPA’S concerns, Ms. Worth said, because the problems seem so big and the incidences of asthma keep rising.

Air quality in schools also was a focus during the Clinton administration. The EPA released an indoor- air-quality kit for schools in 1996, and it has updated it regularly. The kit includes a booklet of guidelines and research, and contains lists for administrators to check as they inspect their facilities.

This August, the EPA plans to host a three-day symposium in Washington to discuss such interrelated topics as school design, renovation financing, mold, asthma, and student achievement.

Many experts agree, however, that the key to better air quality in schools is preventive maintenance. Steve Page, the director of the EPA’s office of radiation and indoor air, said some schools haven’t changed filters in their air-conditioning and heating units for years.

Mr. Page, who spoke at the annual School Building Day conference, also said a big problem is school buses that idle near windows or heating, ventilating, and air- conditioning units, thus carrying harmful fumes throughout the school.

The federal environmental agency, he said, hopes more schools will take preventive steps to head off problems and will become more aware of ways to cut down on risks to their air quality.

“It’s a message we need to get out—what we’re talking about here is more than just a healthy building,” Mr. Page said. “It’s helping teachers and students reach their full potential.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as EPA Pushing Improved Air Quality in Schools

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