School Indoor Environmental Quality: Testing Should Not be the First Step
Teachers, parents, administrators and other school stakeholders often want to have their school “tested” to determine whether or not something in the air could be causing adverse health effects. Testing the air is not the first step that should be taken when trying to determine the quality of the indoor environment. Instead, it is important to take steps to identify potential problems and possible solutions.
Testing for Mold
If you see mold growing on materials in your school, testing is not needed. Mold testing is usually not useful in determining what steps to take for cleanup. If mold is visible, it needs to be cleaned or removed. Even if testing is done, no standards exist to judge what are acceptable amounts of mold.
Testing cannot determine whether health effects will occur. Mold is normally found outdoors and counts fluctuate from day to day depending on the season. Due to the uncertainties associated with testing for mold, the Illinois Department of Public Health does not recommend it in most cases.
For guidelines on mold remediation in schools, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site at: https://www.epa.gov/mold/mold-remediation-schools-and-commercial-buildings-guide-chapter-1.
Identify the problem.
To find a solution to a problem, you first have to identify the source of the problem. Many different environments exist in schools. Therefore, the types of problems can vary greatly from area to area in a school. Here are some examples:
- One floor is always stuffy and many teachers on that floor have frequent headaches and eye, nose and throat irritation that goes away when they leave the building.
- The teachers using the language arts room have been complaining of late afternoon headaches, nausea and fatigue almost every day.
- There is a moldy smell in the band room, and there are buckling ceiling tiles. The band director has only been here a couple of years and is newly diagnosed with asthma. A number of known asthmatic students seem to use their inhalers more often when they spend time in this room.
Interview school staff.
It is important to interview school staff because they can help in identifying problem areas as well as possible solutions. Are there specific types of complaints or are they more generalized in nature? Is there an increase in absenteeism? It may be necessary to distribute a questionnaire if large numbers are affected and specific problems cannot be identified. Key staff to interview include teachers, maintenance staff and the school nurse.
Walk through the building to find possible sources of problems.
Walking through the building using your eyes, nose and common sense can help find the source of many problems. Look specifically at the following areas:
- Look at the general cleanliness in each area you inspect.
- In addition to classrooms, offices, gymnasiums, locker rooms, auditoriums, music rooms, industrial and fine arts rooms, etc., also look at maintenance areas such as janitor closets, mechanical rooms that house ventilation equipment and chemical storage rooms in labs.
- Take note of where carpeting is used. How is it cleaned, and how often? Does it ever get wet from flooding, roof leaks, etc., and if so, how quickly is it dried out?
- Look for signs of moisture such as stained ceiling tiles and peeling or blistered paint.
- Walk around the outside of the building and look for potential pollution sources.
- Look for the locations of fresh air intakes and exhausts. Are they too close together, allowing exhaust air to be sucked back into the building through the intakes? Are the intakes located near dumpsters or where buses, trucks or cars idle?
- Look at how the building is set on the land. Does the land slope downward toward the building allowing rainwater to pool along the foundation? Is the building located on former swamp land or on a landfill? Is there a high water table or underground stream beneath the building?
All of these things can have an impact on indoor environmental quality (IEQ).
Determine the next steps to take.
Depending on what you find during the walk-through inspection, there are several different steps you may need to take to help solve the problem. You may find it necessary to hire one or more professionals to fix, or to further identify, the problems. For example, you may need a mechanical engineer, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning expert, a cleaning and restoration professional, an industrial hygienist, or some other type of consultant.
Above all, it is important to set up good lines of communication between management, staff and parents. This is crucial and cannot be over emphasized.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed an innovative program called Tools for Schools that can assist schools in identifying and addressing IEQ problems. To learn more about the program or to obtain a kit, please go to http://www.epa.gov/iaq/schools/.