Schools that Breathe

in Asthma, Features, Parenting & School
Published: August 26, 2010

sb10069478ak-001For too long, students with asthma and allergies have suffered with symptoms in dusty, moldy, chemical-smelling classrooms. But now some schools are wiping the slate clean – with a healthy approach to air.

Angela Doody pulled open the front door of Priestman Street Elementary school two years ago, and strode across a shiny tiled floor on her way to the office to register her two children. Looking around, she was amazed at how clean and neat the kids’ new school was. “I thought, “We get to go here?” she recalls.

Aside from the friendliness of the staff, it was well organized and uncluttered. “It just seemed like a really good place to be educated.” Doody was not aware that day that Priestman Street has been a prototype: the first school to go through the New Brunswick Lung Association’s Healthy Schools program, the first in a province to vastly improve its indoor air.

Her 11-year old daughter, Katelyn, who has asthma, has been able to benefit from this program while in Grades 4 and 5 at the school. The previous school she attended was in an older, dusty building, and that led to a “rough year for her,” says Doody.

While Katelyn did have some trouble with asthma control in her first year at pristine Priestman – “she picked up a lot of viruses,” says her mother – this past year was far better. “She didn’t miss many days of school last year because of her asthma,” says Doody.

Missing school is a big problem for students with asthma. Too often the school environment itself is a culprit, causing symptoms like wheezing or coughing that are exacerbated by the colds spread by classmates. Science is showing that air quality in schools can have a significant impact on health, and this becomes especially important when there are children attending with asthma or environmental allergies.

Back in the 1980s, asbestos in the schools became a focus (and is still a concern in some schools), but what our school systems have been slower to address are a huge number of allergen triggers and irritants. In classrooms and portables, mould can be a festering issue, antiquated ventilation systems can lead to stagnant air and recycled allergens, while old carpeting can harbour a double whammy of dust mites and mildew.

The janitor may inadvertently spark an asthma attack by using potent cleaning chemicals, so might rodents being shown for educational purposes, while a teacher’s fragrance can aggravate a child with a sensitivity to scent. Even tools as seemingly harmless as chalk and supplies for arts and crafts can be problematic.

Children are particularly susceptible to chemicals, dust and other allergens in the air; they are not simply mini-adults. Their skin absorbs toxins at a higher rate and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults do.

Students with asthma, in particular, benefit from an environment free of allergy triggers. Making improvements to a school’s air quality can at times be simple, such as switching to dustless chalk. Other changes, such as overhauling ventilation systems, are a lot more costly and may require lobbying at the school board level for funding.

However, in schools where air quality improvement plans have been made, the difference has been profound. At Priestman Street Elementary, change began with a simple walk through the school.

Donna Bliss, Priestman Street’s principal, worked with a team that surveyed the one-level school’s four wings, which contained classrooms, main offices, the gymnasium, and the music room. They worked from a checklist from the Lung Association’s Healthy Schools program, which includes a range of potential problems, such as cleanliness, pest control, moisture, ventilation, furnishings, parking zones and storage and use of art and science supplies.

Bliss and the committee identified a number of issues. “We had plants in classrooms that had mould; we had to put air monitors in a couple of rooms because we thought the air was stagnant; we had to check piping because at one point they had been wrapped in asbestos,” she begins to list.

“Our service that gives us custodial supplies was just going through the transition to environmentally friendly products, and we still had some old products, so we had to dispose of them appropriately.” They also examined their outdoor grounds, which are beside a busy intersection in an area of Fredericton known as “Top of the Hill.” They found the yard lacked green space and that school bus drivers and parents were idling their vehicles on school grounds.

Next page: School Ventilation