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A Breath of Fresh Air

Posted on January 9, 2010

Why New Hampshire Schools Should Go Green

By: Scott H. Lawson, M.S., Certified Industrial Hygienist

According to the US Census Bureau, there are over 95,000 public schools in the US. They vary widely in number, average age, and socio-economic status of the students they serve. However, one thing is certain – the quality of the air that students breathe day-in and day-out affects their performance, their health, and their development. According to the US General Accounting Office, 14 million students (over a quarter of all students) attend schools considered below standard or dangerous, and the air in nearly 15 thousand US schools is unfit to breathe.

With facilities including gyms, locker rooms, chemistry labs, swimming pools, woods and metals shops, and cafeterias, schools provide a much wider variety of possible indoor air quality problems than typical adult workplaces. Since the ‘70s, education professionals have had to remediate specific indoor air quality problems, but have rarely taken a holistic approach to improving the overall health of students. For example, schools have been diligent about addressing radon and asbestos, but infrequently considered the effect that conditions such as sealed windows have on student and staff health.

Administrators and educators are increasingly aware of the need to maintain a healthy indoor environment. And, according to a national 2007 survey published in the Journal of School Health, more than half of US states currently provide funding for improved indoor air quality.

First, let’s consider the impact that indoor air can have on schools – and the children they serve. A 2005 survey of current research by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that “…higher indoor concentrations of NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) have reduced school attendance, and…low ventilation rates have been linked to reduced performance.” The same study, conducted by M.J. Mendell and G.A. Heath, goes on to say that “evidence suggests that poor air quality in schools is common and adversely influences the performance and attendance of students, primarily through health effects from indoor pollutants.”

Another factor to be considered is that healthy spaces can reduce environment-related illnesses, including a reduction of between 9 and 20 in cases per year of the common cold, according to a 2000 study by William J. Fisk of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Reductions in the spread of communicable diseases will reduce absenteeism and time lost in the classroom. A 2005 study by Palatino & Company found that improved indoor air conditions resulted in a 15% drop in absenteeism and, perhaps more importantly, a 5% improvement in students’ test scores. A study of schools in the District of Columbia and the city of Chicago similarly reported a 3-4% improvement in schools’ standardized test scores due to improvement indoor air quality conditions.

The advantages of clean indoor air in schools are clear, but how much will these practices cost school districts, many of whom already face significant budget challenges? The two options available to school districts – remediation and building new, green facilities – both carry costs, but those costs are ultimately outweighed by their advantages.

One common indoor air contaminant that can be simply remediated without significantly altering existing facilities is mold. Because of flooding in recent years, New Hampshire schools could be at an increased risk for mold, and the health effects should not to be taken lightly. Toxic black mold, which often affects buildings with flood damage, can cause lung disease, learning disabilities, and chronic fatigue syndrome. And a 1999 study by the Mayo Clinic demonstrated that nearly all chronic sinus infections are caused by toxic black mold. Less toxic (and more common) forms of mold can also have serious health effects. Mold has been cited as a factor in the 160% increase in rates of asthma among children under the age of five reported during the period from 1980-1994, including nine million children currently diagnosed with asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC also found that asthma alone caused 14.7 million lost school days in 2002.

School districts have often faced mold problems for a number of reasons. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that increased mold in schools is often “linked to changes in building construction practices during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Some of these changes have resulted in buildings that are tightly sealed, but may lack adequate ventilation, potentially leading to moisture buildup. Building materials, such as drywall, may not allow moisture to escape easily.”

The good news is that mold infestations can usually be corrected by working with qualified environmental testing contractors. Properly identifying what needs to be done can be complicated, and hiring a properly trained indoor air quality (IAQ) expert is the best way to start.The process would typically begin with a mold inspection and indoor air quality audit to determine the amount of mold you have and at what levels it is circulating through the air. Samples will then have to be tested by an independent lab. “Negative air machines,” which filter out dirty air, may then be used to clean the existing indoor air. Air ducts and doors are sealed off to prevent the spread of airborne mold during the remediation process. During both the prep work and subsequent clean-up, technicians will wear helmets and other protective clothing and monitor changes in the IAQ. A certified industrial hygienist or other IAQ consultant will usually plan, manage and supervise this process. An IAQ expert will then propose ways to assure that mold doesn’t return, which may include increasing ventilation, improving filtration, or rerouting drainage to stop moisture from invading vulnerable areas. An experienced IAQ consultant can provide advice on how to make these facility modifications as inexpensively and efficiently as possible.

Indoor air quality professionals can also help build healthy environments when school districts build new facilities – and keep costs down. Author David Gottfried, in his study Sustainable Building Technical Manual: Green Building Design, Construction, and Operation, estimates that initial construction accounts for only about 2% of a project’s overall cost, with operations and maintenance accounting for 6%. Green building, however, can significantly reduce operations and maintenance costs. For example, a 2003 study conducted by Gregory Kats demonstrates that green buildings can reduce energy consumption by 25-30% on average. Further, an October 2006 study conducted by Kats for the US Green Building Council, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Lung Association, and the Federation of American Scientists, persuasively argues that between utility costs, reductions in costs related to flu, colds, and asthma, and employee recruitment and retention, green schools can achieve savings of over 20 times the costs of building green. Green building, while sometimes thought to be more expensive than traditional building methods, easily recoups the investment over time.

School districts have, however, been slow in making improved IAQ, green practices, and green building options a priority. Of the nine buildings recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council as LEEDs (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System) certified in New Hampshire, only 2 are schools serving K-12 students. Frustrating statistics such as these should not leave school administrators discouraged, however; any steps taken to improve the health of students and faculty are imperative to the ultimate goal of getting all New Hampshire schools to go green.

Scott H. Lawson M.S., author of “A Breath of Fresh Air: Why New Hampshire Schools Should Go Green,” is the President of The Scott Lawson Companies (www.slgl.com) located in Concord, NH. He can be reached at (603) 228-3610 or at scott@slgl.com.