Building Envelope

Want to Improve Student Performance? Start with the Air They Breathe

With 20 percent of the U.S. population — children and adults — spending their days in schools, the quality of the school’s indoor air is an issue that should be addressed. The data support this argument: In a survey of public school teachers in D.C. and Chicago, nearly 80 percent reported that school facility conditions were an important factor in teaching quality.

Almost half who graded their facilities “C” or below would consider leaving, and the most frequently cited problem was poor indoor air. In fact, studies show that half of the 115,000 U.S. schools have problems linked to indoor air quality, while complementary recent research from the EPA suggests that a school’s physical environment can play a major role in academic performance.


There are three main causes of poor indoor air quality, with chemicals emitted from products as a leading cause. Whether a school building is new construction or renovation, that “new building smell” is caused by common product emissions, including formaldehyde, styrene and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). From paint and furniture, to electronic equipment and cleaners, everything we use to build, furnish and maintain our schools can be a source of these emissions.

Lack of proper and sufficient ventilation is a second cause of indoor air quality issues. Most modern ventilation systems are designed for maximum energy efficiency, which often means recirculating the existing indoor air instead of bringing in outside air. The third common cause of poor indoor air quality is moisture and issues related to moisture control.


The impacts of poor indoor air quality can be both acute and chronic in nature, and affect both health and productivity.

The immediate health impact of indoor air pollutants can be subtle — eye irritation, headaches, nausea and fatigue. However, poor indoor air can increase the risk of long-term health issues like asthma, pulmonary infections and even cancer. What magnifies this impact in schools is that children are more susceptible to indoor air pollutants than adults because they are still growing, and breathe in proportionately more air. Children also have higher heart rates than adults, and substances that are absorbed into the blood pass through tissues faster. This means indoor pollutants can cause more severe health effects in children.

A recent study found that students in classrooms with greater ventilation scored as much as 14 to 15 percent higher on standardized tests than those in classrooms with less ventilation. Concentration and attention span are both improved in interior spaces with good indoor air quality.

Absenteeism is another effect that’s been associated with the condition of school buildings. One study in New York State looked at the physical condition of the school building and there was a strong correlation between school absenteeism rates and poor building conditions. Most visible may be the impact that indoor air quality has on asthma. Poor indoor air quality serves as a key asthma trigger, and asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism for children under the age of 15.


UL Environment recently conducted a study on VOCs in paint in a public middle school in Savannah, Ga. Details of that study are published in the paper “Impact of Paint on IAQ in Schools.” During this study, four classrooms with identical construction, furnishings and ventilation were repainted to determine the effect on indoor air quality in the classrooms. Two rooms were painted with a standard interior latex paint, and the other two rooms used paint that was GREENGUARD Gold Certified — a certification for low-emitting products that accounts for sensitive individuals such as children and the elderly, and ensures that a product is acceptable for use in environments such as schools and healthcare facilities. The study concluded that the rooms with standard paint exhibited higher levels of total VOCs, and individual chemicals than the rooms painted with GREENGUARD Gold Certified paint.

Additional information on research on the impact of indoor air for schools can be found at the EPA’s “IAQ Tools for Schools” website.


The most effective way to reduce indoor air pollution is to reduce or eliminate the sources of harmful chemical emissions, as well as adjust maintenance and operations to address the other two main causes. Below are three ways to tackle the issues.

1. Create a structured cleaning and maintenance program. This is a cornerstone for protecting indoor air in schools. With tight operating budgets, school boards and administrators often consider the maintenance budget as an expense that they can cut without affecting core academic program needs. However, the harsh chemicals used in cleaners and poor ventilation systems have been proven to affect academic performance. A cleaning program that offers products certified to be low-emitting (such as ECOLOGO Certified products) can help.

2. Educate staff. This includes maintenance staff, as well as operations staff responsible for sourcing supplies and furnishings, and cleaning operations. Sourcing paints, furnishings, flooring, lockers and cleaning supplies which are certified to be low-emitting, in addition to providing walk-off mats at all entrances, can go a long way to reducing VOCs inside a facility.

3. Ensure the school is getting the amount of outdoor air that it’s supposed to be getting, and that the air is appropriately filtered. In addition to ventilation, moisture-related problems can also be important, and highly contentious, indoor air quality issues. It is better to apply resources to focus on the prevention of dampness or mold growth. Sampling for mold is notoriously ambiguous and specialized contractors and consultants are expensive. Money spent on keeping a building dry always is a good investment.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Authors

Dr. Elliott Horner is a lead scientist at UL Environment.

Scott Steady is product manager for Greenguard certifications at UL Environment.