Back to School: IAQ and Children’s Health
The effects of poor indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools have been known for years – but what’s more concerning is the unknown impacts that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and its variants, will have on air quality and children in classrooms today. While some schools across the U.S. have opted to maintain their remote-learning policies, many districts are ushering students back into classrooms – igniting concerns from parents and teachers alike.
Delta Variant and Children: What You Need to Know
According to scientists in the U.K., the Delta variant (B.1.617.2.) is twice as transmissible that the original SARS-CoV-2 strains, making it the most contagious one on Earth. Not only is this variant more dominant and contagious than the Alpha variant, but it can also make people sicker.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that pediatric COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, leading to an all-time pandemic high of child hospitalizations. During the last week of July, nearly 72,000 new COVID cases were reported in children before jumping to nearly 94,000 – representing almost a fifth of all total known infections in the U.S.
With the new school year just around the corner and a lack of vaccines approved for children under 12, parents, doctors, and school officials alike are becoming powerless and terrified as the world enters what may be the most dangerous moment in the pandemic children.
Air Quality in Schools – Can It Make You Sick?
COVID isn’t the only reason to be concerned about when it comes to health and IAQ.
According to Lung.org, children are especially at risk from poor air quality because of their developing lungs and active nature, which requires them to breathe in a great deal of air. Not only does air pollution affect children while they are still in the womb, but it can also lead to diminished lung function and frequent reports of respiratory illnesses.
As children spend lots of time in school, they naturally spend a lot of time breathing the air inside school facilities.
Many factors that can impact indoor air quality – dust, germs, airborne microbes, mold, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and CO2, to name a few – all of which can cause adverse health effects.
Poor school air quality can lead to headaches, fatigue, nausea, skin rashes, throat irritation, and more. It can also result in an increase in absenteeism and a decrease in productivity. Poor school IAQ can even exacerbate learning and behavioral disorders and lead to several respiratory illnesses, including:
- The common cold
- Lung cancer
Viral respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, influenza, and pneumonia are primarily spread through droplets that become suspended in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Aside from a lack of COVID-19 vaccines for children 12 and under, school facility managers can ensure the health and safety of students and staff by implementing proven indoor air quality solutions that treat the air as it passes through the HVAC system of school building(s).
School IAQ and Absenteeism
Indoor air quality in schools doesn’t just come with adverse health effects – it can even impact performance. Unsurprisingly, indoor air quality issues have been linked to increased absenteeism rates and decreased productivity rates.
For example, Harvard’s Healthy Buildings Program performed research in settings with lower carbon dioxide levels versus environments with increased ventilation rates – ultimately discovering that ideal ventilation conditions resulted in a 60% increase in test scores, combined with an 8% increased productivity rate.
Implementing infection control measures with engineering controls can help foster a sense of general wellbeing that allows students and teachers to focus on learning.
Asthma and Air Quality
Short-term respiratory illnesses may only have a small impact on absenteeism. However, extended exposure to poor IAQ can lead to long-term complications that may disrupt a student’s entire education.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, approximately 25 million Americans have asthma – and it is the leading chronic disease in children today. It is estimated that asthma was responsible for annual economic costs in the $81 billion range based on data collected between 2008 and 2013 and is one of the leading causes of absenteeism in school.
Decades of research have displayed a correlation between exposure to air contaminants and aggravation of asthma symptoms – evidenced by a study surrounding young campers, which revealed a 40% higher likelihood of having acute asthma episodes on higher-pollution summer days than on days with average pollution levels.
While causes of asthma vary, it is interesting to note that boys are more likely to have asthma than girls – nearly 4 percent more. Asthma has historically presented itself as a condition that has a significant impact on the development of adolescents.
Health Effects of Radon and Mold
Radon and mold are two of the most common air contaminants found in schools, which can cause adverse health effects on all building occupants.
There is a good chance you’ve heard of radon – it’s a radioactive gas known for cancer-causing properties. However, you may not be aware that radon is often found in high levels in schools across the country.
Studies surrounding the presence of radon in schools have resulted in alarming finds. According to the EPA, a nationwide survey of school radon levels estimates that almost one in five institutions has at least one room with short-term radon levels above recommended levels.
Radon exposure has minimal short-term effects, but long-term exposure to breathing in radioactive gas can ultimately lead to lung cancer. Since radon has no odor, taste, or structure, it is essential to put radon testing protocols in place before health issues begin to arise.
That brings us to mold, another common school building contaminant. Although small amounts of mold may seem inconsequential, long-term exposure can quickly pose dangers to the health of students and teachers.
Leaking roofs and wet, damp locations, such as the interior of an HVAC system air handling unit, can cause mold growth in school buildings. Symptoms of mold exposure can include nose, throat, eye, and skin irritation, even in those who do not have a mold allergy.
Proper mold management practices – including keeping the cooling coils of your HVAC system clean and free of the gluey dirt, bacteria, and mold mixture called biofilm – is essential to maintaining a safe and healthy learning environment.
What is the Cost of Doing Nothing?
As parents and children begin preparing for “back-to-school,” leaders and educators can chart a new course before schools reopen for the 2021-22 school year. As school facility managers consider potential improvements to your school building(s), consider starting with the most basic thing everyone needs to learn and grow – clean air.
In addition to performing basic measures like increasing ventilation by opening windows and cleaning with non-toxic materials can be easy first steps to ensuring a safe school environment, it is critical to solve IAQ problems, and not just treat the symptoms.
As students, teachers, custodians, parents, and volunteers return to the classroom, ensuring a safe and healthy environment through good IAQ practices is essential for improving attendance, comfort, academic performance, and community trust.
EcoGroup USA provides strong indoor air quality and infection control solutions that can treat the air in your school building to help reduce viral transmissions, decreased productivity, and cause a spike in absenteeism.
Written by: Daniel Evancho
Reviewed By: Dr. Hal Haines, Ph.D.
Dr. Hal Haines’ 45+ years of executive managerial and consulting experience in healthcare has provided him with a broad background in pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, medical devices, and therapeutics. He is a former tenured Professor of Pathology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, Florida. Dr. Haines also established and served as Director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory at Jackson Memorial Hospital, the second largest hospital in the United States. Additionally, he has founded and operated two commercial immunology and infectious disease laboratories and, in a President role, has led a subsidiary of a publicly traded company. During the HIV epidemic, Dr. Harold Haines founded and operated a non-profit organization dedicated to the treatment of HIV and AIDS. He currently holds seats on the Board of Directors in two corporations within the medical field.