At our third Low Carbon Schools workshop on Water, Waste and Wellbeing I gave a talk on Indoor Environment Quality in the classroom. Indoor Environment Quality refers to the environment around us inside – the air, temperature, light, surroundings and noise. That term is relatively foreign to most, it was to me until I studied it as part of my PhD. But I discovered that the spaces where we live, work and play in can have a big impact on our health and performance. It is just, if not more, important in the classroom than the office. In this blog I’m going to focus on a big one – Air quality
Indoor Air Quality
We breathe in between 5-9 litres of air a minute when sitting, and that elevates depending on activity levels. Relative to body surface, children breath in much more air than adults to help them grow.
If you imagine a big water dispenser (around 15L) we are breathing 5 of those every 10 minutes. Now imagine if that water was cloudy and dirty, we certainly wouldn’t drink it, but sometimes we breathe it.
The air around us can fill up with toxins from small particles that can be carried through the air from foreign sources, like dust, aerosol particles, paints, mould and smoke.
A problem with indoor spaces is the production of these toxins in small areas resulting in very high concentration of elements such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Nitrogen Dioxide, Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide and Formaldehyde. Inadequate ventilation from fresh air means these toxins can’t be pushed out of contained areas, so indoor spaces become contaminant sinks, and kids can be breathing this air in.
These toxins can result in short and long term health consequences, as well as inhibit cognitive performance.
CETEC has seen CO2 levels within classrooms significantly over the 2,500 ppm level, which is said to be equivalent to a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration.
Some work in the US studied ventilation rates in schools, and most were well below the standard. And, that lower ventilation rates and higher carbon dioxide were associated with lower performance levels in students and reduced decision making ability. They also found increases in student absenteeism, mainly due to asthma and respiratory issues. And there’s some long term risks of cancer associated with some toxins.
What can you do to improve Indoor Air Quality at your school?
The first step is being aware of the sources of some of these toxins. Gases can come from new furniture, computers, printers, paints, cleaning products, car exhaust and chemicals used for science. Mould can also grow and emit spores into the air if a classroom has a leak or is damp.
The second step is to minimise these sources as much as possible, look for labelling of no-VOC where possible and ensure natural cleaning products are being used. Where possible use paints or chemicals in contained areas. If you see dust build up on any vents be sure to clean this off and reduce any other dust that could be breathed in.
Most importantly, ventilation is critical to move any toxins through the air. This becomes challenging on very hot or cold days when you need to keep a classroom sealed to minimise energy waste. But when possible maximise the fresh air that is coming into that space. Imagine how the oxygen levels drop and carbon dioxide increases as soon as the doors close and hundreds of litres or air is being breathed in and out.
Look out for patterns in illness or complaints amongst students and teachers – headaches, sore or dry eyes, runny noses, coughs, wheezing. These don’t immediately mean there is a problem with the air quality, but if you notice repetitive patterns over time it is worth getting air quality assessed by a professional.
Remember that every school is different, you will have different outdoor air quality as well. So if you are located near a road you need to be aware of fumes in the air and not be ventilating your classrooms with air already laden with toxins.
Here is a check list to help you get started towards healthier, happier classrooms!