Poor Air Quality at Schools Contributes to a Global Health Crisis

Children can spend over 1000 hours a year in a classroom, breathing in air that is far more polluted than the air outside.

A recent report by the European Heart journal claims that more people worldwide die from polluted air than smoking.

Every day, the emissions from vehicles, factories and power plants affect the health of millions of people. The combined effect is reported to lead to an estimated 8.8 million pollution-related deaths every year.

The journal report, based on WHO (World Health Organisation) data, stated that in Europe alone, 790 000 people are dying each year due to poor air quality. The tragedy is, these deaths are avoidable and unlike smoking, not self-inflicted.

Sadly though, nobody can avoid pollution like they can smoking or unhealthy diets: it is a part of daily life and modern society. Schoolchildren are often the worst affected. Schools are found in some of the most polluted parts of our towns and cities, next to busy roads, industrial areas and power stations. So they breathe in some of the most dangerous levels of airborne pollutants. It is nothing short of a public health crisis. Yet it is poorly communicated, under-monitored and goes on unchecked all over the world.

Schools located close to heavy traffic, industrial areas and power stations/petrochemical plants ‘breathe’ bad air: it penetrates the school building and everybody inside it. And it often lingers. Most of the time schools are found in older buildings and they are densely populated sites, so air does not circulate well and the problem can spiral.

Children that go to school in urban areas may spend 90% of their time breathing dangerously polluted air. And the air they breathe inside these urban and inadequately ventilated classrooms is usually WORSE than the air outside.

To compound the problem, children, and their developing bodies, are more affected by pollution than adults. Relative to their bodyweight, they breath in higher volumes of air. So, as they exercise in the playground next to busy traffic, or pass the winter in unventilated classrooms, these pollutants can have a major effect on their growing organs, tissues and on their long-term health.

The effects have been well-studied and well-documented. But in the main, they remain under-communicated. The effects include asthma, allergies, respiratory and cardiopulmonary pathologies and a range of other health-related issues. So severe and widespread is the problem, that at least a third of all children in Europe are now known to suffer from bronchial asthma or some form of allergy, all of which can be linked to the air they breathe on a daily basis.

Poor air quality at a school can come from various sources. It can come from the building materials, such as the paint (VOCs), the furniture (off-gassing) or from the cleaning products. At schools in urban settings there will be higher levels of particulate matter (from vehicle exhaust emissions and industry).

Overall, levels and types of pollution varies from city to city. It varies within cities and within the same school. It can even vary between sides of the same classroom. It varies according to the time of day and it varies between days of the week. It also varies according to the seasons. In all cases, air monitoring will inform you of seasonal, daily and hourly changes and will help you plan accordingly.

Remember, even low-levels of pollution can have a serious effect on a developing child. Things like Carbon monoxide (CO) Carbon dioxide (CO2), Ozone (O3), Nitrogen oxides (NOx), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Particulate Matter (PM) are known to be dangerous even at low concentrations and in schools, they are known to be higher than in other buildings of comparable size and use.

The good thing is, pollutants (and their sources) can now be monitored, tracked and quantified. Technological advances have made air quality monitoring an affordable option and devices such as Airqoon offer accurate, effective and reliable streams of high-quality and highly-valuable data.

The increasing affordability of these devices means we can evaluate air quality in real time. Teachers, Headteachers and pupils can see the pollution levels. Teachers can therefore take measures to proactively lower a child’s daily exposure to harmful airborne contaminants. Parents and school governors can plan and invest accordingly.

This knowledge can be stored, shared and viewed on multiple platforms. It can lead to the simplest of measures, such as opening or closing a window. On a broader basis, you will know when then air is cleanest, enabling strategic airing periods or strategic playtimes which avoid the times of heaviest pollution.

Monitoring the air in classrooms allows a school to track air quality over the course of a year. Winter (when windows tend to be shut) can be compared to summer. This information enables a school to take further preventative action. This could be low-cost, such as having more indoor plants or discouraging parents from driving their children to school. Or it could be higher-cost, such as installing new ventilation, air filtration systems or redesigning classroom layout.

So many schools worldwide suffer from the unfortunate combination of heavily-polluted air, poor infrastructure and high-occupancy levels. Monitoring air quality gives schools the power to combat this problem and to drastically improve the health and welfare of all their staff and children.

Poor air quality is especially damaging to children’s health and there is no doubt, has a significant effect on the behaviour and well-being of every child. There is also no doubt that air pollution is a global health crisis. Schools are sites of repeated exposure and high-occupancy and monitoring the air for the long-term benefit of every child’s health represents an investment like no other.

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