The Complicated Nature of Indoor Air Quality
BY GLENN BRINCKMAN/School Administrator, March 2022

THE RETURN to in-person learning in schools was both welcomed and uncertain. Administrators, teachers, staff and students were greeted with new guidelines, protocols, technologies and practices due to the ongoing pandemic, including new scrutiny over indoor air quality.

Consider this: On any given weekday during the school year, one sixth of the U.S. population spends time in a public school. This includes nearly 51 million children and more than three million public school teachers. Schools also host events during non-school hours throughout the year.

Given the dynamic role of schools in daily life, indoor air quality, or IAQ, is of the utmost importance. However, the sheer volume of factors at play, including the age and structure of school buildings, can make measuring, controlling and ultimately improving indoor air difficult. IAQ in schools is complicated, something school leaders and their teams know first-hand.

Wear and Disrepair

The state of disrepair of many school buildings makes matters more complex. More than 98,000 public school buildings operate in the United States. On average, those buildings were built around 1968. Half of all public schools need at least one major facility or system repair. About 40 percent of school districts report that half of their schools need HVAC upgrades.

Even if every school building were modernized and outfitted with the latest HVAC systems, IAQ would still be challenging. Factors like humidity and temperature have a significant impact. Also, an urban school is likely to have greater air quality issues than a rural school.

As if all of that were not enough, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 46 percent of schools in the United States have environmental conditions that lead to poor IAQ.

A great many of the approximately 75,000 chemical substances in commercial use today can be found in schools, from cleaning products to lab chemicals to art supplies and more. And this doesn’t account for commonly found products — computers, television monitors, printers, wall­paper, furniture, carpeting and wood flooring — that contain or emit small amounts of ozone or other byproducts during regular use.

Multilayered Approach

There is no such thing as perfect indoor air because the real world isn’t sterile. But we can work to improve IAQ through a combination of strategies, many of which on their own have limitations.

»Upgrade your HVAC air filters. Those with higher ratings on the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values, or MERV, scale are effective at capturing smaller particles. But older HVAC systems may not be able to accommodate them. Retrofitting an HVAC system can be a budget buster because of expensive filters.

»Open doors and windows to bring in fresh air. This assumes the outdoor air is clean (no ozone, mold spores or other pollution). This action also can be impractical during freezing winter conditions or steamy summers.

»Add indoor room air purifiers. They come with Clean Air Delivery Rates, which are based on the devices operating at their maximum set-ting. But what happens if and when the devices are turned down because they are noisy? Our research shows this happens often in school classrooms.

»Add in-duct bipolar ionization or other technologies. Do your homework and look for compliance with the UL 2998 “zero ozone emissions” standard. This independent certification is consistent with the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers guidance and follows EPA, CDC and U.S. Department of Education recommendations for consumers that desire this type of technology.

GLENN BRINCKMAN is CEO of Global Plasma Solutions in Charlotte, N.C.