Crayons. Elmer’s rubber cement. Musty library copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Hand sanitizer. Cafeteria tater-tots. Stinky shoes. Body odor. Bleach. Teen spirit.
These are the various smells that emanate from schools, and they are an unmistakable bunch, inducing moments of sweet nostalgia and terrifying junior high-era flashbacks. Aside from permanent markers and gym sneakers, there are also lingering odors present in schools, sometimes barely noticeable and insidious in nature, that pose risks to human health. Of course, the risk of falling ill from exposure to off-gassing chemical pollutants known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs is greatest in growing children who are more susceptible to developing allergies, asthma, nausea, headaches and other conditions. In fact, children who are exposed to high levels of VOCs are four times more likely to develop asthma.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a staggering 50 percent of schools have problems linked to poor indoor air quality, one of the greatest environmental risks to a child’s welfare. Typical classrooms have 50 to 300 different types of VOCs present in the air — most have an odor but some not. The source of these health-compromising airborne contaminants are various: institutional cleaning supplies, building materials, paints and finishes, furniture such as desks and chairs, the English teacher’s perfume and the list goes on. Sources of outdoor air pollution such as vehicle emissions, pollen and pesticides also can be found inside classrooms.
Along with various governmental and private initiatives, Greenguard is dedicated to helping foster healthier schools with improved indoor air quality through the Greenguard Children & Schools certification program. Products that meet the rigorous indoor air quality standards of Greenguard Children & Schools certification, some of the toughest in the world, are tested for more than 10,000 different VOCs (not including the teacher’s fragrance).
Aside from producing happier, healthier students, the benefits of improving indoor air quality in schools are numerous. Here are a few key benefits, most taken from 2011 USGBC President’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Gregory Kats’ 2006 white paper, “Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits” and outlined by Greenguard in its interactive School IAQ Tour:
According to Kats’ study, schools that take proactive steps to improve indoor air quality through various measures – increasing outdoor air ventilation, controlling moisture levels, etc. – see a 10 to 85 percent improvement in general student health. Although this may leave the school nurse twiddling his or her thumbs, the benefits of having a school full of healthy, ready-to-learn kids are many.
Although some kids will do anything to stay home sick, it’s no fun when school actually makes you sick. As mentioned, poor indoor air quality has been linked to allergy attacks, headaches, nausea, fatigue, and last but not least, asthma-related symptoms that are responsible for a staggering 14 million lost school days each year. One Oregon elementary school that implemented a comprehensive indoor air quality management plan saw a 15 percent decrease in absenteeism. Impressive!
Studies have shown that student test scores in math and reading dramatically shoot up – by 14.7 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively – when the condition of a school improves.
According to studies, schools built or renovated with various health- and planet-friendly aspects including indoor air quality management plans are better able to retain teachers (a 54 percent increase) and to attract new ones (20 percent increase). Keeping a school consistently and happily staffed minimizes the time-consuming and costly process of recruiting and hiring qualified educators and allows for more resources to be spent on what’s really important: learning.
The amount of funding that a school receives is directly correlated to student test scores and attendance. With healthier kids scoring higher on tests and not staying at home sick with symptoms related to poor indoor air quality, the better the school’s chances at increasing funding.
This article was written for UL by Mother Nature Network, 2013.