A recent article in the New York Times described parents’ concerns about their children’s exposure to carcinogens in schools.
Tests revealed that old lighting ballasts -- devices that regulate electric current for fluorescent lights -- leaked PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) onto the light fixtures and floors. PCBs are toxic chemical compounds that have been linked to cancer.
The tests indicated that this was a widespread problem, since the aging classroom fixtures still remain in some 800 of 1,200 school buildings in New York City alone. EPA issued recommendations in December urging schools across the country to replace all of the old light fixtures as soon as possible.
Action sought to provide quality air in schools
Parents are urging schools and government to take action and to resolve the issue. Health risks may not be immediate, but they increase with longer exposure. It may be costly to replace the ballasts, but how does it compare to future health-care costs? It has been shown that children are much more affected by pollution than adults.
The use of PCBs has been regulated since the late 1970s, but before that, the chemicals were widely used in electrical products and building materials like caulk. A federal ban came into effect after it was shown that PCBs were linked to cancer, impairment of immune and reproductive functions, and other illnesses, as well as lower I.Q. levels.
Poor indoor air quality a common issue in schools
It’s not only PCBs that can affect children in schools.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, over half of U.S. schools have problems linked to poor IAQ.
With nearly 56 million people, or 20 percent of the U.S. population, spending their days inside elementary and secondary schools, EPA warns that IAQ problems in schools are a significant concern.
EPA lists the most common indoor air pollutants in schools:
- Biological contaminants (mold, dust mites, pet dander, pollen, etc.)
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) or Secondhand Smoke
- Lead (Pb)
- Nitrogen oxides (NO, NO2)
- Radon (Rn)
- Other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde, solvents, and cleaning agents
- HVAC System: the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system is not able to control air pollutant levels and/or ensure thermal comfort
Poor IAQ in schools can be costly
Maintaining or restoring good air quality in public and private schools is important for many reasons. According to Health Canada, “Good IAQ contributes to a favorable learning environment for students, productivity for teachers and staff, and a sense of comfort, health, and well-being for all school occupants.”
Conversely, indoor air pollution in schools can be costly over the long term. Besides the health risks, poor air quality can set schools back financially due to the potential for expensive investigation and hasty solutions during a major indoor air problem, higher heating and cooling costs, damage to the building structure and mechanical equipment as well as higher liability.
In the US and Canada, facility managers can turn to helpful checklists, maintenance tips and remediation procedures provided by national institutions such as EPA and Health Canada.
For immediate help with removing airborne pollutants and to keep the air clean, schools can also benefit from free-standing industrial-strength air purifiers with activated carbon and HEPA filters. These can be moved from one room to the next and clean the air quickly and efficiently.
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