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Air Quality Found Inside Schools Is Making Children Sick

By January 10, 2019 May 4th, 2020 No Comments
12–14 minutes to read

Learn why schools face an urgent need to protect and improve indoor air quality, and how commercial air filtration systems just may be the solution.

Scientists and educators have long raised concerns over the number of school children across the United States that are currently exposed to air pollution in schools. The risk is exceptionally high for schools in low-income neighborhoods, which tend to have higher concentrations of airborne pollutants and thus face a greater need for commercial air filtration systems.

Why Schools Need Commercial Air Filtration Systems

And it’s not just the outdoor environments that pose a health risk caused by pollution exposure. In 2014, the National Center for Education Statistics surveyed a number of school districts in the country and estimated that the average age of school buildings in the country was over 55 years old—in other words, the average school building in the U.S. was built in the late 50s to early 60s.

Furthermore, close to a quarter of the country’s schools have at least one building requiring extensive repairs, with nearly half of these buildings having problems related to poor indoor air quality.

“During the 70s and 80s, many buildings were built and retrofitted with thicker insulation, tighter windows and doors, and vapor barriers, all in an effort to reduce heat transfer and prevent cold air from entering buildings,” notes Camfil USA’s Charlie Seyffer, Manager of Marketing & Technical Materials for commercial air filters and 37-year ASHRAE member and active committee participant. “But this has had the inadvertent effect of encouraging the buildup of moisture and pollutants from contaminant sources inside of the buildings.”

In addition, old buildings may release radon, a colorless gas naturally released by the rock and soil the building is built upon, as well as asbestos particles that are related to a common construction component used during that period. Both are toxic and associated with serious health problems.

Why Indoor Air Quality is Important in Schools

Most people are already aware of the negative health effects of exposure to outdoor air pollution. However, what they don’t realize is that poor indoor air quality can be just as bad, if not worse. In fact, studies by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on human exposure to air pollution have found that indoor levels of airborne pollutants can be two to five times—sometimes over 100 times—higher than outdoor levels of air pollution. Particularly concerning are the levels of indoor air pollutants in school environments, where children can spend eight hours a day, five days a week inside classrooms, hallways and cafeterias.

Schools also have a higher density of people than other buildings, which makes it more likely for people to inhale bacteria and viruses, transferring colds, the flu, and other airborne microorganisms. Students also spend a lot of time inside gymnasiums, locker rooms and recess areas where high levels of biological contaminants and dead skin cells are present.

Another consideration is that many public schools are in cities and tend to be located in densely populated areas, making students more susceptible to outdoor air pollution from cars, industrial facilities and construction activities.

What Studies Have to Say About the Need for High Efficiency Air Filtration Systems in Schools

A recent study published in the journal Environmental Research sought to understand what kind of air quality public schools throughout  the country were facing. Using census data and earlier findings by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the researchers mapped out the air pollution exposure of approximately 90,000 public schools across the United States to assess which schools needed solutions such as high efficiency air filtration systems the most.

The researchers found some concerning results:

  • Of the roughly 90,000 schools surveyed, only 728, or less than one percent, managed to obtain the best possible score for indoor air quality
  • Of the 10 worst-polluted schools, more than half were located in low-income neighborhoods
  • Schools in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey —specifically Jersey City and Camden— had the worst indoor air quality

In the case of Camden, a city that got an “F” in a recent air quality study, heavy industry was cited as the biggest risk to the health of school children when it came to air quality. In fact, schools in Camden’s industrial Waterfront South have suffered for years from exposure to severe air pollution. On many days, the air in this area contains so much dust and smoke pollution from trucks and smokestacks that children have had to resort to using inhalers during lunch breaks.

Benefits of Commercial High Efficiency Air Filters/Air Purifiers

Perhaps the most significant benefit of using commercial high efficiency air filters and air purifiers lies in their ability to effectively capture particulate matter (PM2.5) less than 2.5 microns in diameter.  PM primarily refers to solid particles and liquid droplets small and light enough to be carried by the airstream and inhaled. Commercial level high efficiency filters that have an efficiency of MERV 13 or ePM2.5 should be considered whenever possible. This level is consistent with the protection level provided for common office environments, a level that should also be consistent with the protection of our most valuable resource, our children.  

“Prolonged exposure to fine PM can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases,” says Seyffer. “For young children, the sick, and the elderly, high levels of PM can cause or aggravate existing illnesses, or worse, death.”

PM2.5, or particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, is especially dangerous because it is small enough to enter the small alveoli in the lungs and cross into the bloodstream. When this happens, these foreign contaminants can then make their way to the body’s vital organs.

Aside from particulate matter, schools can also have other airborne pollutants such as:

  • Mold or other organics
  • Radon
  • Ozone
  • Bioeffluents
  • Viruses or other communicable matter
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

The risks posed by these pollutants are even more dangerous to children as they have a more rapid breathing rate, eat more food, and drink more liquids relative to their body weight compared to adults. So, it’s imperative that air in schools be as clean as possible.  

Benefits of Commercial High Efficiency Air Filters in School Settings

In the context of schools, however, commercial high efficiency air filters offer these real-life benefits:

  • Lower student absenteeism – Clean air inside schools means that students are less likely to become sick from asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses. From the school’s perspective, high absenteeism rates can affect its ability to receive government subsidies—this is particularly true if aid is contingent on a per-pupil-present-daily basis.
  • Lower teacher and staff absenteeism – Similarly, ensuring that air inside school buildings is clean and safe means that teachers and other staff have a lower likelihood of being sick from exposure to polluted air. Fewer absent teachers also translates to fewer instances of having to bring in substitute teachers, which can place an additional financial burden on the school and disrupt the flow of student’s learning.

Work with Reputable Air Filter Manufacturers for the Best Results

Installing the appropriate air purification systems from leading commercial air filter manufacturers in a school’s central system HVAC units, or even in wall ventilation systems goes a long way toward eliminating these problems. Although it will require a substantial investment on the part of the school, the financial reward in lower absenteeism, healthier students and faculty, and cleaner air inside school buildings, is more than worth it.

For more than 50 years, Camfil USA has offered air filtration solutions specifically designed to address the indoor air quality issues found inside school buildings. We recommend using MERV 13 (ePM2.5) particulate matter filters for common student areas and HEPA filters with carbon absorbers for school laboratories or other odor pollutant generating areas. If you would like more information about our commercial air filtration systems for schools, get in touch with Camfil USA today.


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Lynne Laake

Camfil USA Air Filters

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