Students with asthma and other sinus and respiratory problems are greatly affected by small changes in air quality. While asthmatics and their families can make many changes in their home environment to improve indoor air quality, schools are where children spend a large portion of their days. Just as in homes, schools suffer from many indoor pollution sources that release gas, particles or chemicals into the air.  This problem is heightened by inadequate ventilation and changes in the outdoor climate.

While parents and children may feel helpless in improving a school’s air quality, there’s plenty of incentive for schools to create health indoor environments. Since one in four students has asthma, and asthma-related issues are the number one cause of absenteeism in schools, it’s for the benefit of students and school systems to tackle this issue!


Sources of pollution, according the EPA, include building materials and furnishings (asbestos-containing insulation, wet or damp carpet, or furniture made of certain pressed wood products), cleaning products, central heating and cooling systems, and outdoor sources (pesticides and other pollution).  Other pollutants and triggers include:

  • Classroom pets (animal dander) and plants
  • Stuffed animals and other things that collect dust
  • Dust mites and cockroaches
  • Mold
  • Pollens
  • Scented products and strong fumes or odors
  • Outdoor air pollution and environmental smoke

See here for a detailed list of other potential pollutants.

Inadequate ventilation contributes to indoor air quality problems.  If too little outdoor air enters, pollutants can accumulate to levels that can pose health problems.  The rate at which outdoor air replaces indoor air is described as the “air exchange rate,” and when there is little natural or mechanical ventilation, the air exchange rate is low and pollutant levels can increase.  Learn more about ventilation in buildings.

Health effects from indoor air problems can be short-term and/or long term. Likelihood of certain reactions depends on age, preexisting medical conditions, and individual sensitivity.  Short-term, immediate effects of exposure to indoor air pollutants include:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Symptoms of other diseases like asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and humidifier fever

Whether or not these symptoms are related to indoor air pollutants can be determined by monitoring when these symptoms arise.  If they go away when a student leaves school, then the problem can be attributed to the child’s school.

Schools must consider clean air when constructing new buildings, classrooms, etc.  The EPA’s IAQ Design Tools for Schools outlines tactics for creating schools that not only have high air quality, but also energy efficiency, day-lighting, materials efficiency, and safety.

Preliminary Design Phases
Controlling Pollutants and Sources
Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Systems
Moisture Control
Renovation and Repair of Existing Schools
Operations and Maintenance
Portable Classrooms

Learn more about IAQ Design Tools for Schools.

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