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Indoor Air Quality in Schools

As Schools Reopen, Keep an Eye on Poor Indoor Air Quality: It’s Not Just About Coronavirus; Pollutants Are Also in the Mix

As we move toward the reopening of schools during a quieter phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, health concerns are top-of-mind. While the public is focusing on social distancing and masks, there should be one other item on the check list: indoor air quality. Because the air students, teachers, and staff breathe will play a critical role in their health going forward.

indoor air quality in schoolsBesides coronavirus droplets, the vapors and particles given off by VOCs or volatile organic compounds, can negatively affect ones’ health, leading to compromised immunity, allergies, and other health problems. VOCs are emitted from various products used or found indoors such as arts and crafts products, disinfectants, pesticides, flooring, furniture, disinfectants and cleaners, and aerosol sprays.

VOCs can irritate eyes, throat and nasal cavities and cause breathing difficulties, and, if you or a loved one is exposed to these vapors over a long period of time, damage to the central nervous system and even cancer can occur. Symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and nausea.

Indoor air quality testingWhile VOCs contribute to poor indoor quality, so does mold. Over the last several years, mold has proliferated in dozens of schools in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, even causing delayed openings for some last year. So, while school systems and daycare centers are working to comply with the new coronavirus regulations, they also need to pay more attention to their overall air quality. Happily, some are and are opting for upgraded filtration and air purifying systems. Others have a way to go.

We’ve created this guide to explain what you need to know about two major indoor air pollutants – mold and VOCs – and alert you to the symptoms and signs of both that may appear in schools and other buildings.

Your Guide to Preventing Indoor Air Pollution in Schools


VOCs in Schools

VOCs in schoolsUnfortunately, VOCs are commonly found in school buildings and are given off by many man-made materials including: arts and crafts, carpeting, furniture, printers and copiers, adhesives, cleaning and disinfecting chemicals, aerosol sprays, and paint. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found concentrations of VOCs in indoor air to be as much as five times greater than those found in outdoor air. Indoor levels of VOCs may reach 1,000 times that of the outside air during certain activities. New buildings or newly renovated schools are especially prone to VOCs because all of the new materials are off-gassing simultaneously. Therefore, because children spend between 35-40 hours per week for 9-10 months of the year in schools, potentially they are being exposed to harmful chemicals.

Common symptoms of VOC exposure include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue and listlessness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Nervousness
  • Difficulty concentrating

Mold in Schools – Where is It Found?

water stain moldClassrooms, hallways, offices, and building corridors often harbor mold spores and dust mites, as do the building’s ventilation systems. If your child has allergies, you should find out how often the school cleans its HVAC vents, and if it uses high-efficiency air filters to remove mold, pollen, and other particles from the air. This may help to alleviate some of a child’s mold allergy symptoms. Libraries, art rooms, and gym locker rooms are typical areas for mold to grow in because they harbor moisture.

Mold and Children

All mold, toxic or not, is a health hazard. While toxic mold is the most harmful to a child’s health, all mildew and mold can cause health issues—especially for those who suffer from allergies. The younger a child is, the less developed his or her lungs and other organs are so the child is more vulnerable to contaminants, putting the child at special risk, whether at school or home.

Is It a Cold, Mold Allergy, COVID or Something Else?

How do you know if your child has a cold, the flu, seasonal allergies, COVID, or a mold allergy as many of the symptoms are the same? If a fever is present, this pretty much rules out allergies. But the fever might be caused by the flu, a virus, a cold or something else.

Signs and symptoms of a mold allergy:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy eyes, nose and throat
  • Headaches
  • Cough and postnasal drip
  • Watery eyes
  • Wheezing 

Symptoms of toxic mold exposure:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Poor memory or difficulty finding words
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • A tingling or numbing sensation on skin
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Multiple chemical sensitivity, which causes varying symptoms due to low-level exposures to commonly used chemicals

If you child is fine in the morning, but returns from school with any of these symptoms but the symptoms quickly subside, there is a good chance that there’s an irritant at the school. If the pattern continues over time – child fine in the morning, returns home with symptoms that eventually subside, suggest to your school that they test their indoor air quality. However, if symptoms persist and do not subside, or if a fever develops, contact your physician.

Mold and Asthma

asthma indoor air qualityIf your child is allergic to mold and also has asthma, his or her asthma symptoms may be triggered by exposure to mold spores. The symptoms can sometimes be severe. Your child may experience acute coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. To reduce asthma attacks caused by mold, ask your school to test for mold and air quality to see if the school’s indoor environment is the cause. Also, speak with your doctor about managing your child’s condition.

The Importance of Indoor Air Quality Testing

Testing a school’s indoor air quality should be on everyone’s list. If the result is poor indoor air quality, there are several remedies, including upgrading the building’s HVAC and ventilation systems. Low emission paint, better flooring, and using different cleaning products also are a great start to lowering VOCs in schools. Carnegie Mellon University reviewed five studies evaluating the impact of improved indoor air quality on asthma, and found an average reduction of 38.5% in asthma in buildings with improved air quality.

What Else Can You Do?

Ask other parents or members of the PTA/PTO if they have noticed any signs of mold or VOCs at the school or symptoms of these toxins in their children. Ask if they are aware of any unusual, strong, or musty odors in the school. Also, determine if there has been any recent construction or renovation work done in the school. If the answers are in the affirmative, and if children are experiencing health issues, request that mold and indoor air quality testing be done. If mold or VOCs are discovered, there are remediation protocols that should be followed. Those include post-remediation clearance testing to ensure the remediation was done properly and there is no longer a health hazard present.

If you have questions about mold or VOCs in schools, please feel free to call us at 800.392.6468. We’ll be happy to answer your questions.


70% of homes are estimated to have mold behind walls. (Harvard EDU)

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