Greening Our Schools: Indoor Air Quality - Part 2 by Guest Blogger, May 19 2011, 0 Comments

Photo courtesy of bss1jlm via Flickr.

It’s Springtime and pollen season is raging. According to scientific studies, global warming has caused pollen rates to soar this year. If you have kids with allergies and asthma, as I do, you know this is a stressful time of year. Pollen is one of the reasons why May has been dubbed Asthma Awareness Month. Asthma has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, affecting millions of people of all ages and races. According to the Centers for Disease Control, on average, one out of every 10 school-aged children has asthma, and the percentage of children with asthma is rising fastest in preschool-age children. Asthma is the most common serious chronic disease of childhood. In 2003, an estimated 12.8 million school days were missed due to asthma. Asthma is also the third-ranking cause of hospitalization among children under 15. Bad indoor air quality in schools can cause asthma, as well as other symptoms like headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness, nausea and behavior changes. Children who already have asthma or neurobehavioral and developmental disorders, like ADD or ADHD, may be more susceptible to environmental toxins. Two of the most important factors affecting indoor air quality are mold and poor ventilation.

Mold and Poor Ventilation

Molds are types of fungus; they can be black, green, orange or purple, slimy or fuzzy. Mold releases spores that spread easily in the air. Mold grows quickly in damp, humid places and anywhere there are leaks: ceiling tiles, walls, standing water in the basement. It doesn’t need sun to grow; in fact it can grow behind walls and other hidden places. Musty, earthy smells mean mold is present. When it is, it can cause severe respiratory problems. The best way to prevent mold from growing is to report any leaks and/or musty smells to custodial staff and school administrators, and have them fixed immediately. Wet carpets, fabrics, or rags that don’t dry properly encourage mold growth and should be thrown away. Remediation may be necessary to rid a place of mold. Blocked air vents, dirty air conditioning filters, and windows that don’t open prevent air from flowing freely and can worsen mold problems. It’s very important to make sure clean air is being brought into the school through open windows and intake vents. Intake vents should be far from sources of pollution that can bring dirty air into a building. Classroom vents should be free of books, papers, and other objects. Custodial staff should make sure that all HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system filters are cleaned and dusted regularly.

Cleaners and Air Fresheners

Children’s developing bodies are more susceptible than adults to chemicals and pollutants. Patti Wood, Executive Director of Grassroots Environmental Education and author of “The ChildSafe School,” says that chemicals in our environment are wreaking havoc on our children’s bodies. “In the last 20 years, there has been a 20% increase in childhood cancer - 1% every year. Cancers that we only saw in older adults we're now seeing in young children. Parents need to know that there are chemicals in the school environment that may be putting their children's health at risk,” says Wood.

Children have direct exposure to all kinds of cleaning products in schools on a daily basis. Teachers often ask for disinfectant wipes, which they use to clean tables; these wipes typically contain bleach and other chemicals which are inhaled and absorbed through the skin and can trigger asthma and allergies. Since September 2006, New York State has had a Green Cleaning Law, as well as green procurement guidelines, for both public and private schools across the state. The state law requires schools to transition to approved "green" cleaning products and adopt "green" cleaning practices to minimize adverse health 
impacts on children and the environment. “There are approved products that are supposed to be used,” says Wendy Hord, Health & Safety Specialist at the New York State United Teachers, the largest union in the state. Hord says that there is a lack of information about the law and the impact of chemicals and toxins on children.

Schools may never have informed teachers or parents about the law, or which products are approved. Resistance, habit, and the pressure of advertising are also factors. “Like everybody, we’re all raised with an idea of what clean smells like and what makes something clean. So education, and giving teachers spray bottles filled with the approved products to clean their classrooms, are both important,” says Hord. Scented candles, stand-up or plug-in air fresheners, and aerosol sprays like Febreze are also dangerous and should not be used in classrooms. “There is nothing out there that prohibits school staff from bringing these products into the classroom,” says Hord. “But air fresheners are petrochemicals and asthmagens, so individual schools need to have clear policies to prohibit their use,” she says. Moreover, Principals should be finding out why staff members are bringing these items into their classrooms: is there poor room ventilation, or smells from dirty rugs, causing teachers to want to mask one odor with another? Periodic walk-throughs of classrooms by administrators and custodial staff can bring such maintenance problems to light.

Toxic Art Supplies

Patti Wood says that there is no current national safety standard for art products that parents can rely on. She says that markers used on whiteboards or for art projects, commonly made with solvents like toluene—found in nail polish remover—can be very toxic, as can adhesives. If kids inhale the marker fumes, they’re inhaling those solvents. “Smencils, which kids love, contain small molecule phthalates in the fragrance which are potential endocrine disruptors,” says Wood. Parents can ask teachers to use only nontoxic, unscented materials for art projects and classroom work. Wood advises parents and teachers to especially avoid permanent markers, or any others that say "Warning" or "Danger."

Rodent, Dust Mite and Cockroach Allergens

Certain proteins in the waste and saliva of insects and rodents, as well as dust mites, can cause allergic reactions or trigger asthma in sensitive individuals. The best way to prevent an intrusion by insects or rodents in the classroom is to keep a classroom clean and free of clutter. For cockroaches and rodents: don’t leave food, water or garbage out. Ask custodians to seal any holes that could be used as pathways and shelters for rodents. As with mold, look for leaks and moisture that could be attracting the animals to your classroom. Pesticides or poison baits should not be used as they are toxins and asthmagens. Schools should employ sensible Integrated Pest Management practices, using the least toxic method first. The Smart Mouse Trap is a humane rodent trap that can be used to relocate unwanted visitors. It can also teach children humane lessons. Dust mites feed on dead skin. They can’t be seen but they live in carpeting, upholstery and on stuffed animals/toys. Stuffed toys should be washed in hot water regularly, surfaces should be dusted, and upholstery and carpeting should be vacuumed frequently. Pillows can be covered with zippered dust mite covers.

Old Boilers and Dirty Heating Oil

If you’ve seen black smoke pouring from buildings, it’s caused by old boilers that burn dirty heating oils (No. 6 and No. 4). According to a 2009 report “The Bottom of the Barrel” by the Environmental Defense Fund, the pollution from dirty heating oil surpasses all the soot pollution from New York City’s cars and trucks. The large amounts of particulate matter/soot and toxic substances (suplhur dioxide and heavy metals) produced by these boilers, worsens air quality, and aggravates chronic illnesses like asthma, heart disease and cancer. The burning of these oils also worsens indoor air quality. “Anytime you burn something inside, you’re going to get pollution, there’s no way around it,” says Nick Gromicko, founder of InterNACHI, the largest trade association of building inspectors. “There’s no doubt that fumes from boilers get into the classrooms; and the older the boiler is, the higher the chance that it’s producing unacceptable levels of fumes,” he says. Gromicko says that new, high-efficiency boilers not only have flues that take harmful gases out of buildings, but they also have air intakes that bring fresh air into the boiler. “That fresh air is used for combustion instead of using the school’s air.” Moreover, says Gromicko, old boilers are in old buildings, which means that old boiler rooms may not be vented properly, allowing contaminants to build up inside. In February 2011, Community Board 7 in Manhattan passed a unanimous resolution calling upon New York City (NYC) and the Department of Education (DoE) to “eliminate the pollution and health hazards caused by burning dirty heating oils” in schools and replace them with either natural gas, or boilers that burn No.2 – a higher grade oil. Some 440 NYC schools – and 9,500 city buildings - burn the two worst types of oil. The city's DoE says it is converting boilers at 159 schools within the next three years, to burn cleaner fuels. At a cost of $5 million per school to make the transition, it will cost about $2 billion to remove dirty oils from all NYC schools.

Vehicle Idling and Secondhand Smoke

Idling school buses, trucks, cars, and other vehicles spew particulate matter and elemental carbon (from diesel exhaust) into the air around schools, worsening air quality and respiratory diseases. School bus diesel exhaust also makes its way into school buildings through open doors and windows. The Asthma Free School Zone (AFSZ), a NYC non-profit, has worked aggressively to call attention to the idling problem, resulting in the country’s first one-minute idling law around NYC schools. AFSZ provides K-12 lesson plans on idling and asthma, as well as official No-Idling and No Smoking signage that can be posted outside of schools. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), estimates that up to 1 million children’s asthma symptoms are made worse by exposure to secondhand smoke. An easy solution is for schools to pass and enforce no-idling and no smoking policies around school grounds.


Radon, a radioactive gas, comes from the natural decay of uranium in soil. It is one of the most toxic indoor air pollutants and the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Radon enters from the soil beneath a school, through cracks and openings in the foundation. Air pressure inside a building is sometimes lower than pressure in the soil under the foundation. Because of this difference in pressure, a building acts like a vacuum, trapping radon inside. According to the EPA, thousands of classrooms nationwide have elevated radon levels. The agency recommends testing all schools for radon. Radon levels of 4 picocuries per liter of air, or higher, would require radon mitigation strategies.

PVC Plastics

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a cheap and lightweight vinyl plastic that can be used to make anything, but “it’s the most toxic plastic from cradle to grave,” says Grassroots’ Patti Wood. PVC includes chemical stabilizers like lead and phthalates that are released as PVC products age and break down. The dust can be inhaled, posing a health concern. PVC is a known human carcinogen causing liver and brain cancer, and some cancers of the blood. When PVC is produced, recycled and disposed of in incinerators, or burned in fires, it produces dioxin—a known human carcinogen and hormone disruptor.

In studies of children 42 months of age and younger, dioxin has been proven to cause impairments to growth and development, most notably in the immune, reproductive and nervous systems. Unfortunately, PVC is rampant in schools—in flooring, building materials, pipes, siding, carpeting, vinyl wall coverings in bathrooms and hallways, electrical insulation, door frames, shades, and blinds. It’s also present in children’s lunchboxes, backpacks and notebooks says Wood. To rid a classroom of PVCs in a non-threatening way, Wood suggests playing a “Plastic Detective Game,” to survey things in the classroom that could be replaced with something safer.

The Center for Health, Environment and Justice’s (CHEJ’s) “This Vinyl School” Web site can help with this game. CHEJ and others suggest avoiding PVC plastic—shown as the number 3 in the recycling symbol— as well as products labeled with the word vinyl. Moving forward, schools need to adopt green building standards to avoid PVCs and other toxic building materials when schools are being built or renovated. The LEED standard for buildings discourages PVC use. The U.S. Green Building Council has a Green Schools Toolkit and is actively involved in helping schools go green. “If anyone should adopt the LEED building standards, schools should; if we invest in anything, it should be our children and their future," says Wood.

While there are many challenges for maintaining a non-toxic school environment in today’s world, the good news is that many symptoms and exposures can be prevented or minimized with awareness and good building management practices. The EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Program and Action Kit offers a comprehensive plan for improving indoor air quality in schools and is a good place to start.

Guest Blogger: Emily Alix Fano is an environment/health writer and green schools advocate living in New York City. She can be contacted at