Have you ever walked into your child’s classroom and noticed a musty odor, a strong cleaner smell or fragrance? Does your child complain of headaches in class when kids are using dry erase markers at their desks?  

These are clues to indoor air quality (IAQ) issues at school. If the air inside is unhealthy, health problems can result such as fatigue, headaches, asthma episodes and allergic reactions.

Parents need to be air quality-conscious so they can ask the right questions and assist school staff in the effort to improve the air their children breathe. This pays off for everyone in the building: studies show that healthy school buildings reduce absenteeism and illness, and help children learn and behave better.

Factors that affect indoor air pollution are wide-ranging and can include cleaning products, mold, some art materials, and improper ventilation.  To address these in a strategic and systematic way, schools can adopt an air quality plan such as the EPA’s Tools for Schools to improve and maintain healthy air in their buildings. Overall the focus is on keeping the building dry and clean, controlling pollutants, and ventilating adequately.

While expensive fixes like replacing ventilation systems are sometimes needed, there are many cheap and effective things that can be done to improve air in the classroom right away. Here are a few examples:

  • Use low-odor, low-toxicity materials such as school supplies and certified green cleaning products. This is important to consider when lists of requested supplies or donations for the classroom are created. Common items like disinfecting wipes, antibacterial soaps, or fragranced hand sanitizer should be avoided. Instead, have kids wash hands with plain soap and water.
  • Don’t use room deodorizers, which emit harmful chemicals and are usually used to mask an odor indicating an air quality problem. Instead, deal with the source of the odor.
  • Keep food in the classroom to a minimum, to prevent pest problems.
  • Ensure operable windows can open easily and let fresh air in regularly.
  • Clean up classroom clutter so surfaces can be kept clean, reducing dust and germs.

Parents can play an important role in making healthy indoor air a priority at their child’s school.  If parents or a “green team” can get buy-in from the teacher or appropriate staff member and then take care of simple changes like those noted above, that’s great! Here are tips on how to champion clean air in the classroom:

  • Begin by talking informally with a school staff member who knows you and your child. Ask questions about what steps are being taken to ensure high quality of indoor air in the school.
  • Become informed about common air quality problems and solutions, highlighting the successes of other school districts that have made positive changes. Some great resources include the Parent’s Guide to Indoor Air Quality from the Healthy Schools Network, and Washington Green Schools Guide to Healthy School Buildings.
  • Find another parent or staff member who can be an ally, helping your research and investigation.
  • Build a team – it takes a group of people, including parents and school personnel, to address school air quality.
  • Utilize groups like the PTA (Parent Teacher Association), which has a resolution on indoor air quality.
  • Try to identify a specific problem to work on, such as poor ventilation or toxic cleaning materials. Success with small changes can be effective in establishing trust. For instance, instead of trying to change every cleaning product at once, start with a single one used in the classroom and then build on that success.

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