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As MPs Scrutinise Dangers of Air Pollution, Schools must Prepare for Tough Questions

By Christian Lickfett, air pollution expert & MD of Commercial Air Filtration

Many of us would think twice before buying a house abutting a main road, not just because of the noise, but because we want to protect our families from inhaling exhaust fumes every day.

And, given children spend 1,300 hours a year at school, there’s no reason concerned parents shouldn’t factor in air quality when it comes to choosing their children’s school.

In the coming months, the spotlight will be shining unforgivingly on the scourge of outdoor and indoor pollution in homes, schools and offices, and its potentially devastating effects. MPs from four House of Commons committees have teamed up to undertake a ‘super inquiry’ into the scale of air pollution and how to reduce it, with findings due to be published on 24 April.

There is plentiful evidence children are especially vulnerable to air pollution. Because their breathing rates are higher in relation to their body weight than adults, they are particularly susceptible to the effects of ultra-fine airborne particles that are absorbed into the bloodstream.

A damning report by Unicef, called Clear The Air For Children, showed that in Europe, 120 million children live where toxic fumes exceed limits deemed internationally safe, and diseases linked to air pollution claim the lives of 4,000 under-fives every year. And, in December 2016, a British Lung Foundation petition suggested 3,000 UK schools are within illegal levels of airborne pollution.

Exposure during developing years is associated with decreased respiratory function later in life, and verbal, perceptual, motor and behavioural disabilities, as well as hearing impairment, irritability and developmental delays. Poor indoor air quality has been linked to a reduction in the ability to concentrate, calculate and memorise.

The cross-committee inquiry means air pollution is likely to become a hot topic, and schools should be on the front foot. It’s increasingly likely parents will come to expect schools to monitor the quality of air in classrooms and playgrounds as standard, and for robust clean air policies to be built into health and safety policies.

It is certainly not just outdoor air pollution that’s the problem. In the USA, EPA studies have found pollutant levels indoors are usually two to five times higher than outside.

Indoor air pollution affects both old and new buildings. New builds are often tightly sealed and synthetic building materials, paints and varnishes, items of furniture, and carpets that off-gas chemicals like formaldehyde, are trapped in. Meanwhile, in older school buildings, you might find mould spores, asbestos, radon contaminations from the ground, carpet fibres, and general dust.

Outdoor pollutants such as vehicle exhaust, pesticides and factory emissions can all make their way inside. For schools that have fitted ventilation systems, these systems are often not properly maintained, creating the risk of introducing further pollution into the indoor air environment.

Of course schools care deeply about the welfare of their children, however, there will be educational institutions who have not considered the health impact of air quality on students, and especially not that the air inside their classrooms could be an issue.

There are several measures that can be implemented to help control air pollution and meet schools airborne hygiene needs. These measures might include implementing the right cleaning practices, investing in proper high performance air filtration systems, and adopting careful construction and interior design techniques.

Considering the growing public awareness, schools are likely to experience pressure from parents as the effects of poor air quality become more well known.

Five questions that private schools can expect:

  • Has the school evaluated the levels of airborne contamination in classrooms? Is this reported to parents?
  • Are there routine inspections for moisture and mould, and has the school established prevention and remediation plans?
  • Does your cleaning staff use safe, non-toxic products as standard?
  • Does the school have plans to invest in air filtration units that will effectively remove harmful and toxic airborne contamination?

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