Indoor Air Quality in Schools: Student Health and Performance


Indoor air quality (IAQ) defines how the air in a building affects our health, comfort and work performance. By enduring a global pandemic, we as a community now know the benefits of adequate ventilation, filtration, and the adverse health effects or the lack thereof.

But did you know these adverse health effects are often more threatening to children than adults?

Below, we look at the meaning of indoor air quality, the causes of indoor air pollution and the effect on children. 


What is Indoor Air Quality?

Indoor air quality (IAQ) refers to the quality of the air within your office or building.

Fluctuating IAQ levels can occur when certain air pollutants from particles and gases contaminate the air of indoor areas. These pollutants can cause poor IAQ and can cause adverse health effects. There are many sources of poor indoor air quality, but the leading cause is inadequate ventilation. 

Other sources of indoor air pollution within an enclosed space can include:

• Fuel-burning combustion appliances
• Tobacco products
• Building materials and furnishings as diverse as:
          • Deteriorated asbestos-containing insulation
          • Newly installed flooring, upholstery or carpet
          • Cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products
• Products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care, or hobbies
• Central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices
• Excess moisture
• Outdoor sources such as:
          • Radon
          • Pesticides
          • Outdoor air pollution

North Americans, on average, spend over 90% of their time indoors, whether it be homes, workplaces, schools, and other public spaces such as restaurants, malls, or community centres.

Many of our day-to-day products and habits are leading sources of indoor air quality pollution. These sources include; 

• Nitrogen dioxide from space heaters and poorly ventilated furnaces
• Carbon monoxide
• Household products (i.e. cleaning agents and disinfectants, paints, air fresheners etc.)
• Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS)
• Pet dander and carpeting

How Poor IAQ Affects Children?

Children have a higher sensitivity to pollutants than adults. They breathe more air relative to their body weight and are actively growing, leading to a greater susceptibility to environmental pollutants.

Yet, children spend a significant amount of time indoors, especially in schools and classrooms, which are often poorly ventilated. As a result, children have a higher chance of experiencing adverse health effects of insufficient IAQ. The EPA has reported that over 25% of public schools feel they have "unsatisfactory ventilation."

a girl in crowded classroom itching her nose

1.Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)

According to the EPA, the term "sick building syndrome" (SBS) is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.

Sick building syndrome has been reported by students in schools with poor IAQ. It is a condition that impacts employees or students that spend a lot of time indoors and is caused by unhealthy or stressful factors, i.e. poor ventilation. Illnesses caused by poor IAQ have resulted in more sick days, from school, due to respiratory-related health problems.

Signs of poor IAQ and symptoms of SBS include:

• Headaches/Dizziness
• Dry cough
• Nausea
• Fatigue
• Itchy or dry skin
• Allergies
• Cold/Flu-like symptoms
• Increased asthma attacks
• Irritation of eye, nose or throat
• Voice hoarseness
• Sensitivity to smells
• Lack of concentration
• Personality/Behaviour changes


2. Cognitive Development

Lack of adequate ventilation has been associated with poor cognitive development, especially in primary school age groups. An experiment was conducted through a Texas school district to improve the air quality condition in schools, which determined that IAQ improvements resulted in improved standardized test performance.

In another experiment, the average ventilation improvement project improved math and reading scores by 0.07 standard deviations (SDS) and 0.11 SDS, respectively, and increased the probability of passing these tests by 2–3%. 


3. Increased Risks of Asthma & Respiratory Issues

Respiratory problems such as asthma are also aggravated due to air pollution within schools. A study has shown the possibility of reducing asthma incidents from 16% to 13% among children by simply applying filters for PM 2.5 in the classrooms.

Other respiratory health effects include:

• Coughing
• Difficulty breathing
• Airway inflammation & irritation
• Irregular heartbeat
• Lung damage

Simple solutions to help manage IAQ in the classroom

1. Mechanical Ventilation

Mechanical ventilation uses ducts and fans to draw in and distribute fresh air, and can even exhaust air from specific areas. Within schools, mechanical ventilation is either present using HVAC systems, or unit ventilators. To further enhance ventilation levels, air purification systems can be installed within existing ventilation systems or unit ventilators to achieve better air quality and reduce indoor air pollution levels. 

2. Natural Ventilation

Simply opening a window or door encourages better airflow within an enclosed room. A study completed in 2017 proves a significant improvement in IAQ, specifically CO2 levels in a room with a group of 4-6 persons, by simply opening a window.

Additionally, cross ventilation is a highly effective method of promoting good airflow. Allowing a breeze to enter, flow through and exit within an enclosed area. This ventilation method encourages continuous airflow by pulling air from openings on one side of a building and through to the other.

3. Regular Cleaning & Dusting

Preventing any buildup of animal dander, dust mite matter, and pollen can improve indoor air quality. The American Lung Association recommends incorporating dusting into your regular cleaning routine, which can reduce the amount of dust and improve overall indoor air quality in your home.

4. Natural Cleaning Products

Substitute bi-products with natural-based products for cleaning agents to reduce indoor VOCs. A study conducted in Brisbane, Australia, in over 25 primary schools - to identify the VOCs’ sources - deduced that chemical-based cleaning products alone, caused 41% of indoor VOCs. The synthetic fragrances found in cleaning and maintenance products are contributing factors of air contamination.