There are few things we take more for granted than the air we breathe. But even when our air seems okay, poor air quality can affect mood and behavior as well as overall health. Poor air quality—especially for kids—can increase asthma attacks and susceptibility to flu as well as contributing to inattention and lethargy.
The culprits for unhealthy indoor air are most often high concentrations of CO2 and the presence of pollutants—including molds. Buildings with poor air circulation mean that students are, quite literally, breathing in their own exhaled CO2, which can contribute to inattention and lethargy. Levels of CO2 are an often used indicator when evaluating indoor air quality; the higher the level, the worse the air.
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The good news is that air quality is relatively easy to fix. And, the same building updates that create better learning conditions by improving air quality also make buildings more energy efficient. New windows, insulation, and improving ventilation systems are examples of work that improves energy efficiency and air quality. When school buildings get a retrofit, the buildings end up with better air exchange, meaning that air circulates better, thus reducing concentrations of CO2 and other pollutants.
Study after study shows that retrofitting schools improves indoor air quality enough that it can improve the health of students and teachers. A review of “green” building projects found at least 17 studies that concluded that energy efficient schools are healthier for kids; for example, they reduce the incidence of flu and asthma attacks. While some of these studies looked at new construction, the point is still the same: better indoor air can mean better health for building occupants.
Washington High Performance Schools: a Report to the Legislature found that indoor air quality is “of particular concern in schools because children breathe higher volumes of air relative to their body weights and are actively growing; so they are more susceptible to air borne pollutants.” The report, using many of the existing scientific studies, found that many schools in Washington would benefit from retrofits which would reduce CO2 created by poor ventilation and circulation of air.
The passage and implementation of Washington’s Referendum 52 means school districts all over the state will be able to clear the air in some of their older buildings, with great potential to improve school performance by reducing illness and absenteeism, inattention and lethargy. This is along with the energy savings the district can put back into the classroom. Clearing the air never sounded so good.
Matt the Engineer
We have to be careful about this, particularly in schools, because there can be a direct balance between energy use and air quality. If a school in introducing, say 20 cfm (cubic feet per minute) outside air per student it’s tempting to just double that to get more fresh air. But remember that we live in a heating climate, and doubling that outside air means we’re having to heat up twice as much air from outside temperatures to inside temperatures, then dump that nice warm air outside.The good news? There are two simple strategies to provide this fresh air without using much extra energy. 1. Natural ventilation (opening windows) allows free fresh air and air conditioning when the weather is warm. The main problem is that this only works in the summer when there are no kids in school. 2. Air to air heat exchangers. What this does is recapture much of the heat of the air you’re exhausting and moving that heat to the fresh air you’re bringing in. It costs more up front, but can greatly improve both air quality and energy efficiency.