The big problem indoors

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The health and well-being of the school children in their care is one of top priorities for any headteacher or teacher in schools today.

The media has paved the way for improvements in school meals through steadfast campaigning, so that children have access to food with high nutritional content and the movement has been truly embraced by schools.  Efforts have been made to educate both children and parents about the importance of healthy eating; however despite the great improvements made in this area another aspect of children’s health is currently being overlooked.

The World Health Organisation reported children and young people can be more susceptible to the effects of poor air quality, both indoors and outdoors, as their lungs are still developing and they take in proportionately more air than adults.

Initiatives to tackle poor outdoor air quality have started to become more commonplace in the last five to ten years; however as the Health Protection Agency admits very little has been done to improve indoor air quality in schools, children’s centres and nurseries.

With programmes such Building Schools for the Future being stopped this year by the Government, plans for new schools and for refurbishment work in existing schools is in question. Ultimately, this means that any initiatives to improve indoor air quality within schools are also in doubt.

This is despite both UK and US research stating that poor indoor air quality is of primary concern to teachers especially in urban areas and that there has been a proven correlation between inadequate ventilation in schools and poor pupil performance. This includes the research undertaken by Exeter University in 2004, which used computer tests to evaluate the cognitive function of pupils. The study demonstrated that the attentional process of school children is significantly slower when the level of CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) in classrooms is high.

So what causes poor indoor air quality and what Government legislation exists on what levels are appropriate in classrooms?

An expert in the field of indoor air quality monitoring, Jamie McNee from Enviro Technology explains that poor indoor air quality can stem from a number of causes, he said: “The primary source is inadequate ventilation in classrooms, which leads to high levels of CO2; however pollutants from carpets and furniture can also be a cause as these release chemical gases, such as: VOCs (volatile organic compounds) over time.”

Jamie continues: “Government legislation in this area was created by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is now falls under the remit of Communities and Local Government. It states that the concentration levels of gases like CO2 should not exceed an average reading across the day of 1500 ppm (parts per million) as otherwise this would result in poor indoor air quality.”

Although, there are only a handful of studies that have monitored the CO2 levels with school classrooms, a study by the initiator of the Government legislation the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2006) carried out indoor air quality surveys within the classrooms of eight Primary Schools in Southern England. One of the main results was that in each school there were occasions when CO2  readings reached 2100ppm well above the recommended average limit.

So do some schools have monitoring in place for indoor air quality?

Jamie explains: “Some schools that were built or renovated within the last 10 years are fitted with standard CO2 monitors that are fixed to the ceilings of classrooms. However, there is an added problem for these schools, as often through no fault of their own, the monitors fail as schools haven’t appreciated that they need to be maintained regularly and have an average shelf life of just two years”.
For those schools without monitors, it raises the question how are the levels of indoor air quality measured in classrooms? This is in contrast to schools in the US and Portugal where indoor air quality levels are regularly monitored and assessed in classrooms.

The study by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2006) concluded that windows could be used more to provide better ventilation. However there was reluctance by teaching staff to do so due to the need to prevent noise and cold air entering the classrooms and the desire to conserve energy by reducing heat loss.

However, if there isn’t a clear cut answer to improving ventilation across the board a pro-active approach to assessing indoor air quality levels will demonstrate that schools are taking steps to understand and hopefully improve the levels for the staff and children.

New state-of-the-art portable monitoring equipment is available in the UK for schools to use to check indoor air quality and CO2 levels.

Jamie explains: “Monitoring probes can be used to undertake regular indoor air quality surveys. The probes are hand held and can be walked through a classroom to take a reading or left in situ in a classroom to give a series of readings over a period of time.

The surveys can be undertaken by a professional monitoring organisation or even a school caretaker or allocated teacher with a short amount of training. The probe takes the results and then links to a Pocket PC so that schools can have up to date reports on the levels within their classrooms which they can use to take action to try mitigate any high levels. The probes also measure VOC levels as well as CO2 so provide more a comprehensive reading of the indoor air quality within each classroom.”

Overall, the Health Protection Agency’s ‘Children’s Environment and Health Strategy’ (2009) states that there is currently a lack of coordinated action within government to improve indoor air quality and that it is important to establish where overall responsibility lies as this seems to be the core of the problem.
The strategy also concludes that there may also be benefits in preparing an action plan to address indoor air quality. However, until the Government prepares a co-ordinated plan to tackle indoor air quality there are a number of measures individual schools can take towards to mitigate high levels within their classrooms, which could begin with comprehensive monitoring.

By Jamie McNee, Enviro Technology, www.