Not many people can say the pandemic has made their jobs easier. But in some ways, Tracy Enger can.
“You know, it is such a hallelujah moment, absolutely,” says Enger, who works at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Environments Division. For more than 25 years, she’s been fighting to improve the air quality inside of America’s schools.
But there are lots of competing demands for limited school budgets. And in the past, getting school districts to prioritize indoor air quality hasn’t been easy. Often, she says, it took some kind of crisis to get schools to focus on the issue – “when they found the mold problem, when their asthma rates were kind of going through the roof.”
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic — spread by virus particles that can build up in indoor air and linger, sometimes for hours. Key to clearing out those infectious particles: good ventilation and filtration. For example, one study of Georgia schools linked improved ventilation strategies, combined with HEPA filtration, to a 48% lower rate of COVID.
Suddenly — finally — lots of people have started to pay attention to indoor air quality in schools, says Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council.
“It matters more to people right now,” says Heming. “COVID is this immediate threat that has made air quality immediately relevant.”
That’s why she and other indoor air-quality experts say the Biden administration’s new National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan is a step in the right direction: It specifically highlights the need to help schools upgrade their ventilation systems for the long term, using funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Heming says in the past, it’s been hard to make a health case for improving air quality in schools, because the health impacts tend to be longer term. But a whole body of research shows the health and academic benefits are substantial — and go beyond COVID. When a room is better ventilated, influenza rates, asthma attacks and absenteeism go down, reading and math test scores go up. Less carbon dioxide builds up in a room, which helps students think more clearly.
“It’s well documented across all different countries and all different ages,” says Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University. “We see benefits in kindergarteners, we see benefits in high school, we see benefits in college students and middle schoolers — every age group.”
And experts say those investments are desperately needed, because most U.S. schools are poorly ventilated to begin with. The average American school is over 45 years old, and many have HVAC systems that are outdated or need repairs, according to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office. Some schools are so old, they don’t even have mechanical ventilation systems.
“I don’t think a lot of people recognize that the design standards [that govern ventilation rates in schools and other buildings] are bare minimums. They were never actually set for health,” says Allen.
Ventilation and green building experts have been offering schools guidance on how to improve their air quality to reduce COVID risk since the early days of the pandemic, even before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged the virus could spread through the air. Broadly speaking, Allen says, the advice boils down to three major things: increasing the amount of outdoor air in a classroom; using higher-efficiency MERV filters in HVAC systems; and supplementing these measures with portable air cleaners with HEPA filters.
Stopgap measures like opening windows or using portable air cleaners really do work to improve indoor air quality, Heming says, but they can only take schools so far. For example, open windows aren’t realistic when outdoor temperatures are freezing, she says, and in humid regions, they can pull in more humidity, promoting the growth of mold.
And while many school districts have invested in stand-alone portable air cleaners, they come with their own headaches, says Heming: The units can be disruptively noisy and they need to be stored and maintained over time.
Allen says understanding these long-term benefits of upgrading ventilation is vital, “because an investment right now is not just a short-term investment for COVID. If a school does this right, they can expect not only years, but decades of benefits to health beyond reductions in infectious disease transmission.”
Information from: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/03/14/1086125626/school-air-quality
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