Friday, February 4, 2011

Indoor Environmental Quality in Schools

We all know public schools are chronically underfunded in terms of programs, supplies, well-paid teachers etc… Two news stories yesterday show that public schools in the US (and the children therein) are also suffering from poor indoor air quality. 

This article in the New York Times describes how the city became a part of an EPA pilot program in 2010 to test concentrations of PCBs (primarily coming from outdated lighting fixtures).  According to the EPA, PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), are “man-made chemicals that persist in the environment and were widely used in construction materials and electrical products prior to 1978. PCBs can affect the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system and are potentially cancer causing if they build up in the body over long periods of time.” 

All NYC schools that the EPA tested had concentrations higher than federal guidelines suggest are safe. Because of this pilot testing in NYC, the EPA put out a national recommendation issued on 12/29/10 that schools should remove and dispose of PCB-containing lighting as soon as possible. (If a school has not retrofitted its fluorescent lighting fixtures since 1978, chances are that PCBs are there.)

What’s in the air in Indiana schools… is unsafe levels of CO2.  An Indiana news agency released an investigative report yesterday showing that 66% of Indiana schools had indoor levels of CO2 deemed unsafe by the Indiana State Department of Health and the EPA.  High CO2 concentration can lead to sleepiness and learning impairment, and the report suggests a link to asthma as well.

While these two investigations focused on particular states, one can only assume the case is similar in most schools in the country. Studies such as these are what led the state of California to evolve its Collaborative for High Performance Schools criteria, with a strict set of standards for indoor air quality (although I don’t believe, anyone correct me if I’m wrong, that CHPS measures PCB levels, alas). The US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system for Schools, now off and running, also addresses indoor air quality.

Existing schools, with tight budgets, are not likely to be able to undertake major renovations any time soon, but perhaps the siren call of better-performing (read: less expensive to operate) green schools will nudge some states and counties to allocate resources in this direction. Those old lighting fixtures, while leaking PCBs, are also surely leaking dollars worth of electricity. And reducing CO2 levels in classrooms really only requires operable (ie, openable) windows to let in fresh air.  Surely we can afford that!