Making a Sustainable School Healthy

As of November 2008, more than 100 schools were already LEED certified, and nearly 1,000 schools are LEED registered with the intent of becoming certified. The national Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) green program is also encouraging green development. More than 35 CHPS schools have already opened their doors, 300 are on the way, and more than 70 school districts have signed resolutions making the CHPS criteria the standard for all new school construction and major modernizations. These numbers are proof that the building green and being green movement is here to stay.

While this is a very positive direction for schools to be moving, schools also need to do their homework on all of the elements of building or renovating green — sustainable sites, water and energy efficiency, protection of natural resources, use of recycled and re-used materials, and the protection of indoor environmental quality. However, one element within this list is vital to the health and well being of students and staff — indoor air quality.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is often neglected when designing, building, and maintaining a sustainable school. Other green elements can overshadow IAQ, compromising the health of building occupants. Ventilation, material selection, and chemical/pollutant control are three issues that affect IAQ and need to be addressed in a sustainable school.

First, let’s focus on why good IAQ is important in a school. Poor indoor air quality can trigger asthma and allergies, cause flu-like symptoms or throat irritation, and even have long-term health consequences such as respiratory and neurological disorders and even cancer. Additionally, children receive approximately 72 percent of their environmental exposure to chemicals indoors and are especially susceptible to indoor air pollution for a variety of reasons:
  • their organs and respiratory, immune, and neurological systems are still developing, and because of their lower body weight and fast breathing rate, they receive a higher pollutant dose per body weight than adults;
  • some older infants and children breathe through their mouths — more so than adults. This difference in breathing may increase children’s risk of pulmonary exposure to particulates and fibers, which would otherwise be filtered out in the nose; and
  • children’s breathing zones are much closer to the ground than adults and, as a result, heavier airborne chemicals and settled dust pose a greater risk to children than to adults.

These factors combine to create a higher body burden of air pollutants for the same amount of exposure.

Ventilation, Material Selection, and Chemical/Pollutant Control
Being energy efficient is a benefit when it comes to saving money, but it can also affect ventilation. Many people, businesses, and schools are trying to conserve energy by tightening up schools and homes as much as possible. Tight buildings mean less air ventilation, and this can result in higher levels of indoor pollutants. The build-up of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can come from a myriad of sources: furniture, wall coverings, art supplies, science labs, and cleaning chemicals to name a few. Without proper ventilation, these chemicals have nowhere to go, so they continue to pollute the indoor air. With LEED, and all green building rating systems, it is essential to balance the efficiency of a building’s systems with the quality of the air that occupants breathe.

Indoor air quality is also compromised when the materials used in the indoor space are not low-emitting, some of which may be sustainable and recycled. For example, some recycled fiberboard can have more formaldehyde than regular fiberboard, and some drywall made of fly ash can contain toxic metals and sulfur gases.

A newly constructed school in Washington state learned very quickly how big of an impact products could have on IAQ when two months after completion they were receiving complaints about increased asthma attacks, nausea, flu-like symptoms, and throat irritation. The school found out that there were high levels of aldehydes in the school, including acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, strong human irritants and carcinogens. Formaldehyde levels reached .22 ppm when the acceptable level is .03 ppm. Total aldehydes levels were at .63 ppm with the acceptable level being 0.1 ppm. Library, classroom, laboratory casework, and finish materials were to blame for the elevated levels of pollutants. Poor IAQ caused the displacement of all staff, students, and activities for more than six months; the onset of asthma and respiratory disease;120 families to refuse to have their children return to the school; negative publicity; and more than $2M in fixtures that needed to be replaced.

The school in Washington learned the hard way to take into account indoor air quality when building their new school, but you do not have to. Use green health guidelines for construction and renovation. These include certain considerations for minimizing indoor pollutants such as selecting low-emitting and mold-resistant products/materials and watching out for “green-washing” product claims such as VOC-free, natural, or alternative.

Source control is the best way of protecting indoor air quality. Using non-toxic materials, furnishings, and processes that do not release hazardous or odorous chemicals into the air can protect the air quality. Primary sources of pollutants in schools come from cleaning chemicals, furniture, and cabinetry including the construction woods, paints, and coatings; flooring; ceiling tile; adhesives and mastics; and electronic equipment. To manage this issue, ensure that you specify and procure only low-emitting products. How do you find them? Look for products verified by their VOC emissions, not VOC content or self-declarations, and ask yourself a few questions.
  • Has the product been tested using reproducible, scientific methods within the past 12 months?
    • If the product has only been tested one time in the past two years, who is to say the sources or processes to make the product have not been changed. Ongoing testing reassures that the product will continue to be as healthy as possible.
  • Has the product received independent third-party certification?
    • Make sure the product has a reputable certification such as GREENGUARD or Green Seal Certification.
  • Is the product readily available?
    • Beware if a manufacturer claims to have large quantities of the product and then suddenly runs out when you go to purchase it.
  • Is the product competitively priced?
    • While there may be a green premium, the product should not be priced out of the market.

Products certified within the GREENGUARD Children and Schools Program meet the most stringent indoor air quality standards in the market including control of phthalates and toxic chemicals. Certified products can also achieve points within the LEED for Schools and CHPS Programs. You can find certified school furniture, computers, cleaners, flooring, and many other products in GREENGUARD’s product directory at In addition, Green Seal has a listing of certified institutional cleaners and other products at

Cleaning Products and Procedures
Cleaning is obviously not a one-time source of pollutants, and needs special consideration in regards to good IAQ. Some of the most common VOCs found in schools come from surface cleaners, disinfectants, deodorizers, floor cleaners, and waxes/polishes, and are used on a daily basis. In addition to using certified products and cleaning applicators, follow directions carefully with this additional guidance: use controlled amounts of the cleaning product (more is not better); ventilate during and after cleaning to flush any residual chemicals out of the space; use floor cleaning equipment which efficiently removes and traps dust, including microfiber dust mops and vacuums with high efficiency filters; avoid terpene scented cleaners and others with significant fragrance; clean in the evenings when the school is vacant to minimize exposure; make sure there are defined cleaning procedures including a periodic schedule, proper storage closet (with exhaust fan), and waste disposal.

Each issue is unique, but all impact IAQ and the health of building occupants and need to be taken into consideration when designing, building, and maintaining a sustainable school. For complete information on indoor air quality, visit and

Mandi Joyner is the communications manager for GREENGUARD Environmental Institute. She can be reached at [email protected]