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Schools that Breathe

sb10069478ak-001 [1]For too long, students with asthma and allergies have suffered with symptoms in dusty, moldy, chemical-smelling classrooms. But now some schools are wiping the slate clean – with a healthy approach to air.

Angela Doody pulled open the front door of Priestman Street Elementary school two years ago, and strode across a shiny tiled floor on her way to the office to register her two children. Looking around, she was amazed at how clean and neat the kids’ new school was. “I thought, “We get to go here?” she recalls.

Aside from the friendliness of the staff, it was well organized and uncluttered. “It just seemed like a really good place to be educated.” Doody was not aware that day that Priestman Street has been a prototype: the first school to go through the New Brunswick Lung Association’s Healthy Schools program, the first in a province to vastly improve its indoor air.

Her 11-year old daughter, Katelyn, who has asthma, has been able to benefit from this program while in Grades 4 and 5 at the school. The previous school she attended was in an older, dusty  building, and that led to a “rough year for her,” says Doody.

While Katelyn did have some trouble with asthma control in her first year at pristine Priestman – “she picked up a lot of viruses,” says her mother – this past year was far better. “She didn’t miss many days of school last year because of her asthma,” says Doody.

Missing school is a big problem for students with asthma. Too often the school environment itself is a culprit, causing symptoms like wheezing or coughing that are exacerbated by the colds spread by classmates. Science is showing that air quality in schools can have a significant impact on health, and this becomes especially important when there are children attending with asthma or environmental allergies.

Back in the 1980s, asbestos in the schools became a focus (and is still a concern in some schools), but what our school systems have been slower to address are a huge number of allergen triggers and irritants. In classrooms and portables, mould can be a festering issue, antiquated ventilation systems can lead to stagnant air and recycled allergens, while old carpeting can harbour a double whammy of dust mites and mildew.

The janitor may inadvertently spark an asthma attack by using potent cleaning chemicals, so might rodents being shown for educational purposes, while a teacher’s fragrance can aggravate a child with a sensitivity to scent. Even tools as seemingly harmless as chalk and supplies for arts and crafts can be problematic.

Children are particularly susceptible to chemicals, dust and other allergens in the air; they are not simply mini-adults. Their skin absorbs toxins at a higher rate and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults do.

Students with asthma, in particular, benefit from an environment free of allergy triggers. Making improvements to a school’s air quality can at times be simple, such as switching to dustless chalk. Other changes, such as overhauling ventilation systems, are a lot more costly and may require lobbying at the school board level for funding.

However, in schools where air quality improvement plans have been made, the difference has been profound. At Priestman Street Elementary, change began with a simple walk through the school.

Donna Bliss, Priestman Street’s principal, worked with a team that surveyed the one-level school’s four wings, which contained classrooms, main offices, the gymnasium, and the music room. They worked from a checklist from the Lung Association’s Healthy Schools program, which includes a range of potential problems, such as cleanliness, pest control, moisture, ventilation, furnishings, parking zones and storage and use of art and science supplies.

Bliss and the committee identified a number of issues. “We had plants in classrooms that had mould; we had to put air monitors in a couple of rooms because we thought the air was stagnant; we had to check piping because at one point they had been wrapped in asbestos,” she begins to list.

“Our service that gives us custodial supplies was just going through the transition to environmentally friendly products, and we still had some old products, so we had to dispose of them appropriately.” They also examined their outdoor grounds, which are beside a busy intersection in an area of Fredericton known as “Top of the Hill.” They found the yard lacked green space and that school bus drivers and parents were idling their vehicles on school grounds.

Next page: School Ventilation

From that list, some changes were easily made. All of the cleaning supplies are now environmentally friendly, there are idle-free zones outside the school, the building is now scent-free, and the school had already converted to dustless chalk.

They’ve also planted several more trees outside, to create a barrier between the pollution from the road and the school. It took three years for all the changes to be in place.

However, one big item still remains on the table. “The ventilation system is due for an upgrade, but that’s a huge cost, and it keeps going on the list of capital projects for the province to look at,” says Bliss.

Ventilation is a common concern when it comes to a school’s environmental quality. In 2000 Pollution Probe, the non-profit environmental advocacy group, prepared a report about the air quality in Ontario schools. Ventilation was identified as one of the key indoor environmental issues facing school boards.

There are a few reasons for this. For one, some schools have circulation systems that rely on air leaving the building through exhaust fans and entering through open windows and leaks in a building – this is called exhaust-only ventilation. Yet, windows aren’t opened in cold weather, and with energy efficiency upgrades in the subsequent decades, leaky spots were tightly sealed. The result: not enough fresh air for young lungs and minds.

According to the report, 70 per cent of Ontario schools were built before the 1970s with exhaust-only ventilation systems. Later renovations then compounded the air issues as larger rooms were divided to create more classrooms and daycare space, at times cutting off ventilation in some rooms.

In areas such as Durham Region, located east of Toronto, air quality problems are dealt with at the school board level. Ventilation is a top concern for Gary Gibson, the manager of health and safety for the Durham District School Board. He came to the school board from General Motors, where he had a background in air sampling and industrial hygiene.

Gibson and his team have developed an innovative way to improve ventilation in their exhaust-only schools, with something he calls “passive supply air systems.” He gets a large hole made in an outside wall, then a unit is installed with a fan that pumps fresh air into a hallway.

“The whole system is passive,” he explains. “The exhaust fans turn on inside, the building goes under negative pressure, the building wants air, and it comes in through these passive air supply systems we’ve installed.”

While ventilation is a large problem in a number of older schools, Gibson says it’s not necessarily the biggest problem. “If I had to pick out one parameter within a school that can really make or break air quality, it’s not the cleaning materials, it’s not the chalk, it may or may not be how well the building is ventilated,” he says. “It’s carpet.”

Next Page: Air Samples

Gibson and a researcher compiled air samples from six years of data to find out, among other things, where they had the most mould. “It wasn’t in our portables, it wasn’t in our air handling system. It was in our carpet,” he says, adding: “They’re a reservoir for whatever’s in the air that falls by gravity.”

Dust mites, a common asthma and allergy trigger, also gravitate to moist, dusty carpeting. Since that analysis was done, Gibson has been ripping the carpets out of all the schools in his district, and any new schools are built carpet-free, except for a loose bound carpet in the kindergarten rooms, and in reading areas in the libraries.

“The mould sampling is just one piece of the puzzle,” adds Keith Wainwright, principal at Durham Region’s Maple Ridge Public School, who removed carpet from the classroom of a teacher who was chronically unwell, even though tests didn’t show mould in that floor covering. With it gone, she had no more symptoms.

At Priestman Street, the carpets have also been replaced with tiles. Bliss goes even further to try to keep allergens out of the areas where students spend their time learning. For one, she has an “indoor shoe” policy, meaning the shoes worn outside by the students don’t make it into the classroom, so “they’re not tracking in any allergens from outside.”

Also, in classrooms where there is an asthmatic child, the school tries to limit the amount the student is exposed to his or her triggers. For instance, there is a child attending who has an allergy to latex and gets asthma symptoms upon exposure. “So any products in that room that are latex-based are removed to the best of our ability,” says Bliss.

While it’s now second-nature to those at Priestman Street to make clean air a priority, the teachers and custodians have had to make some changes in their behaviours and attitudes. “Teachers have had to take ownership for their classrooms in that they have to be careful of what they bring into their classroom,” says Bliss.

Plants are monitored so they don’t develop mould or mildew. In December, Christmas trees are no longer welcome indoors.

“In their rooms, teachers can’t be growing seedlings and things like that for an extended period of time. When we’re hatching chicks, we have to make sure the eggshells are gone quickly, and that we’re not keeping the chicks for more than 10 days. They have to be conscious of clutter in their room, and keeping surfaces clean.”

While teachers play an important role, “the most important person in the whole air quality in school picture is the school custodian,” says Gibson. “He or she is in there cleaning, but also maintaining all the mechanical equipment.”

At Priestman Street, the janitors had to adjust their routines to accommodate the new emphasis on clean air. “The cleaning products got changed,” says Bliss. “But also, they had to clean their mops and brushes and brooms more often. It was more work, but when it became part of the routine, it wasn’t too difficult.”

As Angela Doody will attest, the results of the new routine are apparent. Doody is also pleased with the way the school handled her daughter’s asthma. Katelyn’s condition often flares up during cough and cold season, and during these times she takes her puffer every four hours.

“They were very willing to allow her to do whatever she needs to do,” says her mother. To Bliss, it’s no surprise that the staff at Priestman are supportive of keeping the environment clean. “They recognize the benefits. It’s just as beneficial to them as it is to the students,” she says.

With a clean indoor environment, all inhabitants of the school can worry less about poor health, and more about improving minds.