There are various problems and challenges facing schools when it comes to indoor environment quality. The effects on the health and performance of our children are clear. So how do we go about solving these critical issues?
ASHRAE 62 recommends a maximum 1,000 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) for indoor environments and many commercial office buildings will target levels closer to 650 ppm, but according to Jack Noonan, senior consultant at technical risk management consultancy CETEC, they have recently measured levels in schools which far exceed this.
“In Australia we are subjecting our students to carbon dioxide levels which are beyond 3,000 ppm and then telling them that they need to improve their focus, attention, and grades so that they can compete against our international counterparts in terms of literacy and other standards,” said Noonan.
Noonan has suggested five key areas of improvement:
“If you don’t know the quality of your indoor environment and air quality, how can you be expected to address it adequately?” Noonan asked.
He points to a number of initiatives internationally that are looking at measuring the IEQ of schools, notably in France and the USA. In the latter location, the US EPA is currently conducting the Health High School Study in 70 southern US educational facilities. But these, he says, are the exception and there remains a lack of building rating tools that adequately consider the IEQ performance of schools.
“It is hoped that the application of the Green Star suite of tools for educational facilities (including a focus on Performance and Operations) and the evolution of the NABERS Indoor Environment tool for Offices can close this gap in Australia, but time will tell,” he said.
Noonan said it is important to remember that the IEQ of schools goes beyond traditional sustainability thinking.
“It’s about a shift in the paradigm of sustainability – creating healthier buildings and healthier environments,” he noted.
Dealing with the Source
Source control of indoor pollutants continues to be an important element in improving the quality of the indoor environment.
Selecting appropriate materials – including carpets, vinyl, paints, sealants, plastics, timber products, furniture, electronics, and cleaning agents – is critical in ensuring that the source of pollutants likes VOCs is minimised.
“Rather than just focusing on total VOCs, consideration should be given to identifying particular VOCs and assessing their concentrations,” said Noonan. “This can be important because some VOCs are more harmful than others.”
This is an approach that has been adopted by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and has since extended to LEED and the WELL Building Standards (all originating from the USA.)
Noonan adds that it is also important to remember that our classrooms are essentially chemical and microbial reactors.
“Reactions are taking place all the time and involve VOCs, ozone, nitrous oxides, particulate matter, bacteria and fungi,” he explained. “Often our industry can get fixed on one aspect of indoor air quality, and fail to appreciate the complexity of the chemistry and microbiology that forms the air that we and our children breathe.”
Ventilation continues to be a significant issue within schools. 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.
This clearly indicates inadequate ventilation, but also places the classroom at an increased risk of a build-up of other indoor pollutants such as VOCs, pathogens, and particulate matter.
Maintaining HVAC systems is essential. Proper filtration installed to limit the pollutants entering occupied spaces, regular cleaning and maintenance of coils, filters, drip tray, ductwork can all have a significant effect on the control of particulate matter, and harmful bacteria and fungi within classrooms.
“I was lucky enough to be in Hong Kong for Indoor Air (an international conference) last year. Associate professor Pawel Wargocki from the International Centre for Indoor Environment & Energy presented a paper on the effects of increasing ventilation rates in Danish primary schools,” said Noonan.
“Wargocki and his research team contended that an increase from 6L/sec/per person to 8.4L/sec/per person would have significant health and societal effects, as well as large financial benefits. This includes an increase in Danish GDP of €173 million per annum and an increase in public finances of approximately €37 million per annum.”
The role of FM
“We also need to empower our facility managers,” said Noonan.
While he acknowledges that the experience and capability of facility managers or engineering managers in schools is very diverse, their role in schools is often downplayed. This, Noonan says, needs to change.
“Their influence on providing a healthy and high performing environment for students is critical,” he stated. “Strategy and policy with respect to maintenance and facility management in schools is something that should be addressed at a school level to drive improvements in schools. “
The inclusion of source control considerations in procurement programs, as well as simple things like ensuring HEPA filters on vacuum cleaners, are all examples of simple measures FMs can undertake to assist with improving the IEQ in their respective schools.
Put this on the agenda of policy makers
Finally, or perhaps firstly, there is a desperate need to get state educational departments and national decision makers thinking more seriously about this topic.
“The health, societal, and financial benefits are huge,” said Noonan.