Air quality at school

Make sure the air in your child's school is first-class. Here's how

At the close of a fun-filled summer spent largely outdoors, it’s hard to believe that we Canadians actually spend an estimated 90 percent of our time cooped up indoors. For our children, a large part of that time takes place at school

So what’s the big deal?

Indoor air is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air and, in some instances, up to one hundred times more polluted. According to Health Canada’s Indoor Air Quality: Tools for Schools Action Kit for Canadian Schools, the air in our schools can be polluted by cleaners, pesticides, printers, photocopiers, building materials, furnishings, allergens, fungi, moulds, bacteria, viruses, radon and lead. Plus, tighter, more energy-efficient buildings with reduced ventilation can lead to increased concentrations of these contaminants.

What is the impact?

At a minimum, kids can have trouble concentrating and learning. At its worst, it can wreak havoc on their health.

Respiratory illness tops the list with an average of three to five asthmatic children in a typical Canadian classroom. And the risks go beyond respiratory illnesses: Poor indoor air may impact kids’ immune, urogenital, nervous, skeletal, blood systems and the brain. Staff working in schools with mould and dampness were surveyed for a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US. In addition to asthma, they reported work-related fatigue, headaches, skin irritation, eye, nasal, sinus, throat and lower respiratory symptoms and wheezing.

What can you do?

  • Learn from an organization that works to improve school buildings. Canadians for a Safe Learning Environment (CASLE) has lots of information about indoor air quality in schools: casle.ca.
  • Raise the issue at parent council meetings and get the school community engaged and committed to working toward improving the indoor air quality at your child’s school.
  • Think the air is OK? Then focus on improvement and prevention.
  • Work with the school to reduce indoor sources of pollutants.
  • Any school can get mouldy if moisture problems go unsolved, so take measures to control moisture and prevent mould growth. If mould is already an issue, remediation experts should be consulted to assess the situation. For information on mould guidelines, see Health Canada’s Indoor Air Quality website at hc-sc.gc.ca under Environmental & Workplace Health/Air Quality. Also download a copy of Health Canada’s Indoor Air Quality: Tools for Schools Action Kit for Canadian Schools. See the Healthy School Program at nb.lung.ca/schools for info on how to implement the kit at the school level.
  • Wherever you start, focus on one improvement at a time and know that even something as simple as increasing ventilation to bring more outdoor air into a school has been shown to improve student performance and even increase math test results. Now that would be a breath of fresh air!

Caroline Brown, a parent educator and consultant on child health and the environment, lives in Manotick, Ont.