Poor air quality affects student fatigue

Tom Lopez

Students in classrooms across the country suffer from sleepiness, lethargy and an inability to focus — and, a University professor said, the problem may be more than boring text books.
Bill Angell, professor of design, housing and apparel, said schools across the nation have problems with indoor air quality, and these problems may be responsible for a variety of maladies. Although they don’t constitute a serious health threat, there is evidence to show a possible link between air-quality concerns and test scores and absentee rates.
“In one extreme case, carbon dioxide levels found in one building were above the levels that we would allow healthy industrial workers to be exposed to,” Angell said.
The two biggest culprits of air contamination are poor air circulation and water leaks.
Leakages, often the result of plumbing problems or inadequate roofing, encourage the growth of microbiotic contamination, or mold. This aggravates respiratory problems, such as asthma. An insufficient outdoor air supply can lead to a build-up of carbon dioxide, which may cause headaches, fatigue and an inability to concentrate.
Angell said that one-third of the school buildings surveyed nationwide had inadequate ventilation, and one-third had inadequate roofs that could lead to mold.
Of the 10,000 school districts ranked nationwide, Minnesota ranked seventh in frequency of school air-quality problems.
Fay Thompson, the director of environmental health and safety at the University, said that some buildings on campus have had problems with indoor air quality in the past. “The problem is usually confined to a certain area, often a smaller room or enclosed space,” she said.
Thompson said the buildings that tend to have problems are those constructed in the late ’70s, during the energy crisis. “The building designers were trying to cut back on energy consumption and in some cases they ended up restricting the air exchange,” she said.
Angell added that inappropriate energy conservation is the cause of many air circulation problems. “For example, schools shutting windows to keep heating costs low. The intentions are good, but it may be doing the school more harm,” he said.
Another cause of air-quality problems is cuts in education funding. “When school budgets are cut, it shows in the buildings’ maintenance problems,” Angell said.
Angell said although the fear of high repair costs might keep school officials from testing the air quality, sometimes the problem is minor. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as fixing a control that’s broken, or removing blockage from a ventilator,” he said. “In other cases, the building might not be worth the investment, but those are extreme cases.”
Many school districts have taken a very proactive role in ensuring the quality of air. Angell said that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigated approximately 100 school buildings last year at the request of school officials.
“The bad news is that about 90 of those schools did have some sort of problem with the indoor air quality,” he said. “However, I think the good news is this means school officials are more aware of the problem and eager to do something about it.”
Both Angell and Thompson point out that air quality problems are not limited to school buildings.
“Parents are always very concerned with the indoor air quality of schools,” Angell said. “But they should be equally concerned with the quality of air in their homes. After all, their child spends three times as much time in the house as he or she does at school.”
Angell is planning a series of 10 workshops across Minnesota in February and March to deal with air quality issues.
The professor hopes educating school officials about this problem will replace it with another — rowdiness.
He said after air-quality problems were fixed in one school, the teachers complained that the kids had become too unruly and active. “But I’d rather have them be too active than falling asleep,” Angell said.