Is the indoor air quality in school impacting your child’s health and academic performance? Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that the answer is yes. A big reason for this is the widespread presence of mold in schools.
While adult staff are also impacted, children are at special risk from exposure to mold in schools. Children’s lungs and other organs are still developing, and so they are more sensitive. They also breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults do. In addition, children tend to exhibit more hand-to-mouth behaviors and can't easily identify hazards, or tell when the air they’re breathing is poor.
Though children are required by law to attend school, no legislation protects them from exposure to mold in school buildings.
What are the health risks? And how can parents take action?
Existing Indoor Air Quality Problems in U.S. Schools
Many schools were not incredibly healthy environments for human beings before the pandemic. In too many places, the norm was: older buildings, unhealthy air quality, pest issues, and mold. According to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, schools should improve ventilation “to the extent possible,” by opening windows and doors if they can do that safely, or use child-safe fans.
The guidelines also urge schools to consider upgrading ventilation systems in order to deliver more clean air and dilute contaminants. Dr. Walensky says that improving HVAC systems would help with other public needs beyond COVID-19, such as reducing asthma and reducing exposure to mold in schools. The overall condition of air in schools, says Walensky, is “a problem for other respiratory viruses, for children with asthma, for exposure to mold … there’s a lot of work we need to do in order to get our schools to a safer environment.”
How Mold in School Classrooms Proliferates
Here’s the thing about mold: it requires oxygen, water, and a source of food to grow. There are molds that can grow on almost anything, including wood, paper, carpet, foods, and insulation.
Because of this, controlling moisture is the key to managing mold in schools.
Mold grows in schools when airborne mold spores land on a damp “food source” and begin digesting it in order to survive. The water required for mold growth can enter school buildings and portable classrooms through leaky roofs, pipes, windows, foundations, and other structural openings. Water may also enter schools due to floods, poor drainage, or mis-directed sprinklers. Mold can even enter via biomaterial (food or fluids) transported in by teachers and students.
Classrooms, hallways, offices, and building corridors often harbor mold spores and dust mites, as do ventilation systems. Moisture problems in schools can also result from scheduled maintenance activities or conditions during school breaks such as:
- Increased moisture due to painting or carpet cleaning
- High humidity during the summer
- No air conditioning in classrooms or heating system operation (or reduced use) when school is not in session.
Common Symptoms of Mold Exposure in School
Mold in school buildings and classrooms affects staff and students alike, particularly those with allergies or respiratory problems. Mold can lead to a range of adverse health effects, including:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Irritated eyes
- New or worsening asthma
- Flu symptoms
Less common symptoms include fever, vomiting, nausea, nosebleeds, dizziness, memory loss, diarrhea or constipation, and changes in behavior. Not everyone has the same symptoms, and some are not bothered at all.
Other symptoms may be related to exposure to chemicals produced by molds – including the volatile compounds that cause moldy odors and chemicals known as mycotoxins – or fungicides and other chemicals that are applied to try to kill mold.
Mold in Schools: Remediation is Key
If your child has allergies, especially to mold, you should:
- Find out how often the school cleans its building vents.
- Check if they use high-efficiency filters for air conditioning or ventilation in classrooms to remove mold, pollen, and other particles from the air.
- Raise awareness that libraries, art rooms, and gym locker rooms are very common areas for mold to grow because they harbor moisture. Does the school have a special action plan for these zones?
- Ask about the health of the school HVAC systems. HVAC systems can become inefficient or release unhealthy air with too much too little moisture. Moreover, relative humidity levels can cause dehydration, increased vulnerability to infection, and other health issues.
- Draw attention to this checklist from the EPA on mold remediation.
- Suggest that the school begin monitoring indoor air quality in order to be able to identify and address issues in real-time.
A key way to start mold remediation in schools is to reduce indoor humidity (to 40-60%) by:
- Venting bathrooms, dryers and other moisture-generating sources to the outside
- Using air conditioners and dehumidifiers
- Increasing ventilation
- Using exhaust fans whenever cooking, dishwashing and cleaning
How can you know whether humidity and other conditions are creating mold growth? You need to monitor your air.
This requires a device that can proactively detect what is in your air, and alert you to any issues that arise.
Managing Mold in Schools: Put Your Child’s Safety First
The way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture. If mold is a problem in your child’s school, you must clean up the mold and eliminate sources of moisture.
Delaying repairs or cutting back maintenance makes mold problems worse. Many schools have mold problems because of poor construction, or because they are tightly sealed and poorly ventilated, which prevents moisture from escaping. School personnel and parents should be alert to and help monitor schools for moisture, water damage, and resulting mold problems.
In the quest to reduce mold in schools, real-time air monitoring is key. By tracking VOC levels, PM2.5 particles in the air, temperature and humidity levels, you can receive a warning when the conditions are present that cause mold to grow, and prevent it at the outset. Parents should advocate for schools to apply IAQ monitoring and share the data to show mitigation and improvement.
If you would like to explore air monitoring within your own home first, please try out Awair Element and the companion free Awair Home app, which can alert you the moment indoor air issues arise and provide tips to improve it.
If you are concerned about your local schools let school administrators and parent's groups about how important IAQ is, how easy it is to improve it with the right insights, and have them reach out via this form.