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Air Quality Impact on Academic Performance


According to recent research by the EPA, a school’s physical environment can play a major role in its students’ academic performance. Because of common school issues such as “leaky roofs, problems with heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, know as HVAC systems, [and] insufficient cleaning or excessive use of cleaning chemical [as well as] other maintenance issues can trigger a host of health problems – including asthma and allergies – that increase absenteeism and reduce academic performance.” And, alarmingly, "studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be 2 to 5 times – and occasionally more than 100 times – higher than outdoor levels." These levels of indoor air pollutants are of particular concern because most people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors.

Overcrowded, poorly ventilated classrooms are an especially significant danger during cold and flu season, and dirty, poorly maintained carpets, air ducts, and filters can be a prime source of asthma and allergy triggers. Not only is this unhealthy, but it is also a distraction to students who will have to miss class to deal with the consequences of their school’s poor indoor air quality (IAQ). In 2003, asthma caused children who’d had at least one attack that year to miss 12.8 million school days due to their condition. However, students’ aren’t alone. Their teachers also suffer the consequences of bad air and become sick just as children do, resulting in a break in the educational experience as teachers take leave to recover.

On the other hand, good air quality that results from controlling sources of contaminants, providing adequate ventilation, and preventing moisture accumulation helps students and teachers alike by reducing sources of health issues, decreasing the spread of infections, and keeping pollutants, stale air and mold growth out of the classroom. In this way, a school can improve health, increase students’ ability to learn, improve teachers’ ability to teach, raise test scores, and increase productivity in the school system all at the same time.

Not only can improved IAQ improve performance, but it has also been found that children perform school work with greater speed as ventilation rates increase. What’s more, teachers and school staff also improve with greater ventilation. Because of all this (better teaching, better learning, improved health), students in classrooms with better ventilation earn higher math and reading scores on standardized tests than their peers in poorly ventilated environments. Without a doubt, clean air has an impact not only on the health of students and teachers, but also on how they perform as well, which is why monitoring and maintaining IAQ is critical to any learning environment.

How to spot a problem 

With Americans spending 90% of their time indoors, indoor air quality is more important than ever. However, determining if air quality is an issue can be difficult. Typically, IAQ has similar symptoms to a cold, seasonal allergies, or the flu with symptoms including:

  • Chest tightness or shortness of breath
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Diagnosed infection or clusters of serious health problems
  • Dizziness
  • Eye, nose and throat problems (congestion, swelling, itching or irritation)
  • Fatigue, drowsiness, dizziness or lethargy
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sinus congestion
  • Skin irritation
  • Sneezing

While many of these symptoms are common, there are a few ways to determine if IAQ is the issue. One is by referencing the typical sources of indoor air pollutants and identifying any familiar culprits. Another is by observing reactions to indoor spaces. Some signs to look out for are:

  • Health complaints associated with certain times of day or week
  • Whole classrooms experiencing issues
  • Health issues only present in the building that disappear after leaving
  • Recent renovations or refurnishing
  • New or different materials being introduced to students
  • New cleaning or pesticide products
  • New warm-blooded animals in the classroom

What to do

Poor air quality isn’t a necessity, there are many actions concerned parents can take to improve the air quality of their children’s learning environments. One place to start is by communicating with school officials and teachers to ensure maintenance budgets for HVAC filtration and ventilation are not cut. Another is to establish an IAQ management program or, if your school already has one, participate in your school’s IAQ committee to actively improve maintenance of indoor environments and HVAC systems as well as push for new construction. And, if your child has asthma or allergies, you can get ahead of potential issues by communicating with school teachers and nurses to establish an action plan.

In the meantime, it may be helpful to equip your young one with a portable air purifier to monitor and purify their air. Using a personal air purifier with an app-enabled sensor will allow you to check up on your child’s air quality and gather actionable data, while ensuring their air is kept clean. To find the best air purifier for you, take a look at WIRED’s list of its tip 5 picks

For more information about air quality and how it may be affecting your child, visit the EPA’s website for more useful information. And, to learn more about the importance of clean air for children, check out our article on the 4 Benefits of Cleaner Air for Children as well as all the other resources on our blog.