Monday, May 26, 2014

Portable classrooms cause environmental and health risks

Poor IAQ can affect student
performance and health: Experts
Modular classrooms are common in many school districts.

The prefabricated structures come cheap and fast. They offer a lifeline for districts with more students than building capacity, a problem recent projections show will worsen in coming years.

An estimated 385,000 portables are in use at schools across the country. But portable classrooms more often than not become permanent fixtures.

The largest districts in Oregon and Washington now have thousands of them and a majority are more than 20 years old, data collected by InvestigateWest and EarthFix show.

Those short-term fixes can lead to chronic problems. They burden schools with high energy costs and frequent maintenance needs. They expose students and teachers to mold and mildew, poor ventilation and the potential for volatile gases from cheap building materials.

Tear open a portable and often you will find cheap plywood, particle board, insulating foams and glues — the modular industry often builds to order, and school budgets are tight.

Construct four walls and a roof from that, expose it to the elements for a decade longer than intended and watch your energy and maintenance costs soar.

Students and teachers say the learning experience in portables is compromised by poor lighting, erratic temperatures and noisy heating and air conditioning.

The structures often are relegated to soggy fields or parking lots, near noise and vehicle exhaust.

Indoor air quality experts have only recently begun to quantify indoor air pollution and its effects on student performance.

Here are some tips:

  • Use your nose. If you can smell the humanity and taste the humidity, you know you have a ventilation issue.
  • Use a device that detects carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.
  • Make changes to improve IAQ. Indoor air is always worse than outdoor air, with very few exceptions, experts say.

Indoor air quality problems are widespread in schools across the country, according to Brenda Doroski, director of the Center for Asthma and Schools at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Issues include poor ventilation, mold, and radon in addition to improper use or storage of chemicals and pesticides, she says.

The first and only large-scale study of portable classrooms in particular was done by the California Air Resources Board in 2004, in response to numerous complaints.

The study found inadequate fresh air during 40 percent of classroom hours. It also found higher levels of formaldehyde — a chemical used in building materials linked to cancer and childhood asthma — that exceeded the state’s chronic exposure limits in nearly all portable classrooms.

Levels in portables also more frequently exceeded acute exposure limits designed to protect against respiratory problems.

Such problems occur in all types of classrooms, particularly those where maintenance has lagged, but experts say they find them more often in portables.

Source: Earth Fix OPB. This article has been edited for length.

Concerned about the indoor air quality in your school or learning environment? Electrocorp has designed portable and efficient air cleaners for schools that remove air contaminants. The air purifiers feature activated carbon and HEPA air filters. Contact Electrocorp for more information and a free consultation.

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