Greener Schools Mean Better Health

A significant obstacle along the way has been the perceived economic challenges associated with building green. The vast majority of these challenges have been debunked or resolved, but understandably much of the dialogue around the topic of green schools still tends to focus on economics.

To be sure, economics are important, but too often overlooked in this dialogue are the myriad health benefits associated with green schools, which are every bit as important for us to understand, particularly because the primary beneficiaries are our children.

First, some definitions are in order. What, exactly, is a “green school?” All green school designs are based largely on the standards set forth by the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). A green building (be it a school or other construction) is one that is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout its entire lifecycle. They are designed to reduce a building’s overall impact on health and the environment by efficiently using water, energy and other resources; promoting occupant health and productivity; and reducing waste, pollution and environment degradation.

Clearly, the ability to promote health benefits is at the very heart of what makes a school “green.” Given that there are approximately 55 million students in the United States today, and that the federal government’s General Accounting Office estimates the air is unfit to breathe in as many as 15,000 of our schools, the health implications of green schools demand to be better understood, and factored into any plans to build new schools or renovate existing ones.

A rough estimate, calculated by the sponsors of the report “Greening America’s Schools,” surmises that green schools can lead to the following annual emission reductions per school:
  • 1,200 pounds of nitrogen oxides (a major component of smog);
  • 1,300 pounds of sulfur dioxide (a significant cause of acid rain);
  • 585,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas, and a product of combustion); and
  • 150 pounds of coarse particulate matter (which contributes to smog and causes respiratory illness).
There is a quickly growing body of scientific evidence documenting the precise health benefits that green schools bring to children, teachers and other occupants, but what we’ve learned already is quite compelling. Green schools have been shown to reduce teacher sick days, lower the emission of pollutants (due to reduced energy use and, therefore, fewer burned fossil fuels) and generally improve student performance.

Carnegie Mellon is responsible for much of our current understanding on green school health benefits, largely through its aggregation and assessment of numerous other specialized studies.

For example, the organization reviewed two studies examining the impact of improved air quality on colds and flu, and found an average reduction of 51 percent in buildings with improved air quality. Carnegie Mellon also reviewed five separate studies showing an average reduction of 38.5 percent in asthma in buildings with improved air quality.

Meanwhile, a 2005 Turner Construction survey analyzed two school districts in Illinois, finding that student attendance rose by five percent after incorporating cost-effective indoor air quality improvements. And a recent study of the cost and benefits of green schools for Washington State showed an approximate 15 percent reduction in absenteeism. Similar improvements in absenteeism were also found in a study of students moving into the Ash Creek Intermediate School in Oregon, a green school.

If one broadens the scope of health to include student performance, the findings to date are even more compelling. A study of Chicago and Washington, D.C. schools, for instance, found that better school facilities can add 3 to f4 percentage points to a school’s standardized test scores, even after allowing for demographic considerations.

Further, consider children’s futures: a 2005 International Monetary Fund study draws a direct link between mathematics performance and future earnings. As we now know green schools enhance academic performance, the future implication and benefit for students is clear.

We also need to consider that students spend the vast majority of their days — as much as 90 percent — indoors, with much of that time being in schools, where the prevalence of contaminants is typically higher than outdoors. Children are in the throes of physical development, and the more they are exposed to contaminants while in school, the greater the risk of health problems once they’re adults — which comes with economic as well as grander considerations.

Better health. Better performance. Better economics. Ultimately, the case for green schools couldn’t be a clearer one.

A principal of Spector Group, Marc Spector has played a key role in advancing one of the region’s largest and most prolific architectural and master planning firms in the design of high-technology, sustainable, highly cost-effective projects, nationally and internationally. Learn more at