Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Cleaning the Air in Classrooms

clean air quality


Nearly 200 high school students took ill at the Oconomowoc High School and the Oconomowoc Arts Center, in Oconomowoc, Wisc., on Thursday, Mar. 22. Some students actually passed out and fell to the ground.

At 9:45 a.m., the principal spoke over the loudspeaker urging students, faculty and administrators to evacuate the building. “There is a possible carbon monoxide leak,” he said.

Ambulances transported more than 100 individuals to area hospitals. Still others drove their own vehicles to medical care facilities.

The school remained closed on Friday, and on Saturday, district officials, with the help of Environmental Management Consulting, Inc., (EMC) and the Western Lakes Fire Department determined that the school was safe to enter. Students and staff were admitted to the school to collect belongings left behind during the evacuation.

The school reopened for classes the following Monday.

While officials confirmed that the cause of the problem was carbon monoxide, the source of the gas had not been found a week or more after the incident. According to school officials, EMC, and the fire department isolated and tested the school’s boiler and hot water heater, which are believed to be the only equipment capable of producing carbon monoxide. The tests detected no leaks.

The cause of the incident remains a mystery.

Identifying Air Quality Problems

While it may be difficult to ferret out the source of IAQ problems, it is relatively easy to identify the problem when it arises.

According to Denise Chuick, president of DM Chuick Consultants, a school safety consulting firm that includes consulting on IAQ in its services, the school nurse will probably be able to identify these kinds of problems quickly.

Teachers, of course, may only have one or two students with a cough and sniffles. They would likely attribute the problem to a cold and send such students to see the school nurse. The nurse, however, will notice many students with breathing difficulties and signal administrators and teachers that the building should be searched for possible air quality problems.

The Causes for Poor Indoor Air Quality

“The number one cause of poor indoor air quality is usually mold or mildew, which can occur after a storm or because of a leaking pipe somewhere in the building,” says Chuick.

She advises checking a school building’s air quality after major storms—before sending the students and teachers back to classes. If there are wet spots, set up fans to dry the building out.

In addition, Chuick urges school officials to include IAQ in their emergency response plans. “Check the EPA website,” she says. “It will tell you about identifying problems and making decisions related to IAQ. You really do need a written plan.”

No building is immune to IAQ problems. “Indoor air quality can and does change frequently and relatively easily,” says Allen Behnke, director of facilities services at the Howard-Suamico School District near Green Bay, Wisc., which serves students from the villages of Howard and Suamico.

“Environmental conditions as well as the quality of maintenance of HVAC equipment can affect IAQ,” he continues. “Even nearby construction can affect IAQ.”

Behnke offers two examples that illustrate how fragile IAQ can be. Not long ago, in one of a district’s office buildings, employees began to complain of a faint but unpleasant odor. No one could find the source of the odor, which arose and continued for several days. Finally, someone discovered that an orange had fallen to the floor behind a filing cabinet and, of course, started to rot. “Facilities folks advise against allowing students or teachers to bring food into classrooms,” Behnke says. “It is often left behind and causes an IAQ issue.”

Behnke’s second example: At a seminar on the subject, a state inspector told this IAQ story. A teacher in one of his district’s schools complained day in and day out that there was mold somewhere in her classroom. She believed it was affecting her health.

The maintenance and janitorial crews could find nothing. They eventually asked a state inspector to take a look. He discovered that the soil nurturing several plants in the classroom contained mold.

Mold in soil? Yes. Behnke explains that over time, watering plants—moisturizing the dust in plants—can produce moldy soil. The solution was to replace the soil nurturing the plants periodically.

One of the most effective ways to prevent the build-up of mold and mildew in a building is by ensuring a steady flow of fresh air. That requires a healthy, functioning, and well-maintained ventilation system. The maintenance tasks include changing heating- and cooling-system filters regularly and keeping the system’s dampers open. Finally, it is important to inspect the building regularly, looking for leaks and wet spots.

Behnke also notes the importance of making sure that classroom unit ventilators are well maintained and running properly. Unit ventilators are the equipment that typically stands just inside the windows in a classroom.

It is also important to make sure the outside and inside vents aren’t blocked by shrubs, boxes, or anything else. The vents must remain unblocked and open to insure the flow of fresh air.

IAQ Advice, Regulations, and Training

“A school district doesn’t have to spend a lot of money on IAQ,” Chuick says. “Of course, you must have good quality, well-maintained HVAC equipment and filtration. Beyond that, keep live animals and plants out of classrooms—that is not expensive.”

No plants? “Potted plants reproduce through pollination,” Chuick points out. “If some of your students are allergic, the pollen will affect them.”

This is starting to sound complicated. Go to www.epa.gov, Chuick advises, and search for IAQ for schools, and you will find an EPA program designed to drive decisions about IAQ. This program is not a legal requirement or regulation. States are free to set their own regulations related to IAQ.

“Some states have set their own legal requirements,” says Chuick. “Other states have adopted federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) IAQ guidelines as regulations.

“In Texas, where I live, the state has not formally accepted OSHA recommendations. Instead, the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality or TCEQ has issued regulations controlling IAQ in all public buildings, including schools.”

Some states may also provide IAQ training for school personnel, continues Chuick. In Texas, for example, the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) has set up a risk management pool that school districts can take advantage of to purchase property and casualty insurance. The pool also offers one-day training in various disciplines, including IAQ and asbestos problems.

Managing IAQ does not pose great difficulties or expense. It is typically just a matter of watching for and controlling the problems that degrade air quality: mold, mildew, moisture and dust.

Prevention, of course, is much less expensive than retaining an industrial hygiene firm to clean the air in a building and then to find and repair the source of an air-quality problem.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management April 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.