Indoor air quality (IAQ) is one of the most important determinants of the health of staff and students. Poor IAQ may include temperature and humidity extremes; airborne contaminants, such as mold and toxic chemicals; and inadequate outside air. Poor IAQ creates a poor learning environment and is associated with headaches, drowsiness, skin rashes, dry and itchy eyes, stuffy or runny nose, respiratory problems such as asthma, and many other symptoms.
The purposes of a ventilation system are to distribute adequate, clean outdoor air, to control temperature and relative humidity, and to remove odors and contaminants by filtration and dilution. But a poorly designed or poorly maintained ventilation system may fail in any of those functions and contribute to poor air quality.
To successfully advocate for better IAQ, some basic knowledge of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems is helpful.
Some buildings have a central HVAC system for the whole building or for a wing (see diagram at left). Other buildings may have unit ventilators, each serving one room. Some buildings have natural ventilation, utilizing windows for outdoor air and exhaust or utilizing a hall exhaust fan that may serve a whole corridor of rooms. Many schools have a combination of two or more types of systems.
Below are the main elements of an HVAC system and some key concerns with each one:
A unit ventilator consists of a baseboard, ceiling, or above-ceiling box running along an outside wall. It takes in outside air and room air, mixes them, heats them in winter, and blows the mixture into the room. Problems with unit ventilators include:
Outside air intake is not open sufficiently, or located near outside contaminant sources (see HVAC section).
Dirty or moldy elements in the unit, such as dampers or heating elements.
Blocked supply or return louvers by objects placed on or in front of the unit.
Initiate the 10-step process provided in the NJEA booklet, Organizing for Better Indoor Air Quality : It includes the key starting point, forming a Health and Safety Committee, as well as committee tasks, such as researching and documenting problems, educating staff, and various problem-solving steps. Consult your UniServ field representative to help you organize a committee.
Demand HVAC operation and maintenance: The 2007 New Jersey Indoor Air Quality Standard (see sidebar) requires the district to replace or repair damaged or inoperable components and to establish and follow a preventive maintenance schedule to check, lubricate, and ensure that all HVAC components are in operating order. In some newer buildings, the system may be operated by computerized controls. Whatever the system, maintenance staff should be trained in system operation and maintenance.
File PEOSH complaints on violations of the IAQ Standard when necessary: Visit www.state. nj.us/health/peosh/index.shtml or call 609-984-1863 for more information. Share with members probes they can do themselves, including:
The ventilation system is a key determinant of indoor air quality, but not the only one. For a thorough discussion of taking action on IAQ, see sidebar for Health and Safety Index
Tools for Schools, from the Environmental Protection Agency, has a variety of excellent materials for school staff to conduct their own IAQ assessments and actions. For HVAC systems in particular, check:
The PEOSH IAQ standard site has many resources besides the standard itself, including a model IAQ program and several pamphlets on school hazards.