On a warm and smoggy day last fall, my daughter came home from school and said the kids didn’t go outside for recess because it was “too hot.” I knew poor air quality was more likely the culprit.
While air pollution isn’t good for anyone, kids are especially vulnerable since they breathe more air, relative to their body size, and they have higher metabolism rates. A 10-year California EPA study showed that kids who had been exposed to higher rates of particulate matter had significantly lower lung function by age 18, when lungs are pretty much mature and the results are unlikely to be reversed. Kids in high-ozone communities who participated in several sports were also more likely to develop asthma.
But are the kids better off inside? How healthy are those classrooms, where they spend so much of their lives?
The bad news is that indoor air carries its own serious risks. The good news: Steps can be taken to improve it.
Indoor air has 20 to 80 percent less ozone than outdoor air. However, according to the EPA, levels of several common pollutants are often two to five times higher indoors than outdoors?sometimes 70 times higher. A 2004 Air Resources Board study found shortcomings both in traditional classrooms and in portables.
Water stains and excess moisture, both indicative of a potential mold problem, were found in about a third of the classrooms. Visible mold was reported in 3 percent of the rooms; 69 percent of the teachers reported musty odors.
Construction materials, furniture and carpeting can emit formaldehyde, and levels in nearly all the classrooms exceeded guidelines for preventing long-term effects, including cancer. Pressed-wood products, which may contain a higher concentration of formaldehyde, are more likely to be used to build portables.
If your kid’s classroom has carpeting, chances are good that the level of cleanliness doesn’t reach the standards you keep at home. Twenty to 30 kids going in and out, tracking in dirt and pesticides, results in a nasty mix. The report found traces of lead, arsenic and pesticide residues in the floor dust?and younger kids generally sit right on the floor for activities like story time. Whatever your child’s asthma triggers are, you might suspect they’re in that carpet, no?
The levels of mold, formaldehyde and dust toxins build up thanks to another problem: Poor ventilation. Heating and AC systems often exceed classroom noise standards, so teachers often turn them off, resulting in insufficient circulation. Dirty air filters, which impede air flow, were also cited in the report.
So what are we supposed to do, raise our kids in little oxygenated bubbles?
A better option might be to see how your schools stack up, and if necessary, work with the school or district to create a healthier environment. The EPA offers a free Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit, which covers such topics as managing asthma, pest control, choosing classroom furniture and materials and maintenance and repairs. Take a deep breath?indoors or outdoors, your choice?and get started.
Heather L. Jones is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Davis, Calif.