Good indoor air quality (IAQ) is essential in keeping students and staff safe from potential health threats. But this isn't just a pandemic issue. Clean, fresh air is the bare minimum we should be providing to ensure student success.
In recent times, conversations have largely been governed by when schools can reopen their doors. However, creating healthier classrooms for pupils to return too must also be on the agenda.
From primary through to university, we should be focused on whether the right ventilation is in place to protect those in education from the adverse effects of poor indoor air quality.
It’s important to note that teachers are not immune from poor IAQ either
Learning in a healthy environment
'Sick building syndrome' isn't a new phenomenon, but it is still a common one in buildings with inadequate ventilation.
Aside from physical ailments such as irritation, itchy skin and allergy-like symptoms, there are also mental symptoms including forgetfulness, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.
Although the exact cause of 'sick building syndrome' varies, poor ventilation, building materials and particles in the air are common causes.
Synthetic building materials and furnishings, cleaning supplies and aerosols, dust, carpet fibres and photocopy residue are all commonly found in schools. These are also examples of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which add to the concentration of harmful pollutants in the air.
Not to mention the concentration of students within a room will result in an eventual build-up of carbon dioxide simply through breathing out CO2.
Previously, it was believed that CO2 levels would need to reach a very high concentration of at least 5,000 parts per million (ppm) before they would affect human health. But emerging research has found that levels as low as 1,000ppm can cause health problems even if exposure lasts only a few hours.
Poorly ventilated classrooms have already been found to exceed 1,000ppm, so understanding and minimising the effects of poor air quality is a matter of priority.
Education and poor indoor air quality
Cognitive performance has been found to reduce by 50% when individuals are exposed to 1,400ppm of CO2 during a working day, compared to 550ppm which is maintained via ventilation.
This is echoed by a report which highlights that an increase in ventilation rates can lead to a 7% increase in performance in London schools. Whilst University College London found evidence to suggest that high indoor concentrations of CO2 impairs attention span, concentration and increases tiredness in students.
The cognitive performance of university students can similarly decline by as much as 24% on complex and memory-orientated tasks when CO2 levels reach 1800ppm.
Aside from levels of CO2, Public Health England have noted the link between VOCs and overall health and wellbeing. This is backed up by research which has found the presence of VOCs to negatively impact decision making and productivity.
It’s important to note that teachers are not immune either. Studies have found that poor IAQ can impair teaching effectiveness and instructional practices which in turn affect student's academic achievement.
In universities specifically, students are even at risk of poor indoor air quality in their student halls. Damp and mould are recurring issues in student accommodation, largely due to the number of individuals living under one roof. Moisture is generated by many activities which contribute to mould growth, including cooking, cleaning, laundry, shared bathrooms and just breathing.
Whilst a family of 4 generates more than 100 pints of moisture per week by sharing a bathroom, student residences might produce between 150 - 200 pints.
Damp and mould are renowned for creating health problems such as allergic reactions, skin rashes and asthma attacks, putting university students at greater risk of health complications.
Ventilation is the key
Alarmingly, CO2 concentrations of over 4,000ppm are not uncommon in UK classrooms when the principle ventilation is via opened windows. That's without taking into account other VOCs present in the air.
Mechanical Ventilation should therefore be considered to ensure a steady stream of fresh air throughout the school and university buildings. These systems remove stale air, filter pollutants and bring in fresh air from the outside, helping to keep occupants alert and capable.
But in these days of energy consciousness, particularly in the education sector, it is also important to find ways of minimising energy wastage.
Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) systems can recover up to 80% of valuable heat energy from the outgoing air, meaning less energy is needed to bring the incoming air to the required temperature.
Not only can schools, colleges and universities benefit from the energy efficiency these systems provide, but they can also be confident that their classrooms are optimised for maximum student health and productivity.
Effective ventilation is important in maintaining good air quality in classrooms and other school buildings. Not only is it essential for reducing the transmission of COVID, but it is also a must to provide students and staff with the optimal working conditions to succeed.
Though opening windows is the obvious means of ventilation in UK classrooms, research has shown that CO2 levels can still reach harmful levels via this method. MVHR is, therefore, the preferred ventilation solution for schools and universities.
Not only does it provide a consistent and controlled level of ventilation regardless of outdoor conditions, but it does so without changing the temperature to ensure the thermal comfort of students is maintained.
As the conversation continues on when and how students will be able to return to education, the role of ventilation in ensuring a safe and healthy school or college deserves much greater attention now and in the future.
Kevin Pocock is a Corporate Solutions technical specialist