School Absences Due to Asthma: The Role of Indoor Air Quality

How often are school absences due to asthma? Unfortunately, the answer is: it's very common.

In many schools, the overall indoor air quality is poor. This has a range of ill effects. Research shows that poor indoor air quality in schools is linked to reduced school performance, causing decreased concentration during class and increased absenteeism. As well as this broad impact, studies conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Childhood Asthma in the Urban Environment stated that allergens found in schools affect the respiratory health of children with asthma.

What is the link between indoor air quality, and school absences due to asthma? And what can schools and parents do to improve conditions for learners? Why is an air quality monitoring device key? Read on to find out.

The Dangers of Poor Indoor Air Quality in Schools

When the indoor air quality in schools is poor, students suffer. And indoor air can actually be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air due to a combination of outdoor pollution that gets in, plus allergens, chemicals, smells, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Children are more vulnerable to breathing in air pollution as they breathe more rapidly than adults.

Many US public schools are made up of old, deteriorating buildings with very poor indoor air quality. A American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) report stated that 53% of the nearly 100,000 public school buildings need repairs, renovations, and modernizations just to be considered in “good” condition. This is alarming knowing that in the United States, more than 53 million children and 6 million adults spend a large part of their days in more than 120,000 public and private schools.

Parents and teachers have also raised questions about the quality of ventilation available in public school classrooms, as 40% of U.S. schools need to update or replace their ventilation systems.

School Absences Due to Asthma: Identifying the Triggers

This overall poor IAQ in schools is worrying for anyone concerned by asthma.

Studies have shown that ambient air pollution also increases your chances of developing asthma, particularly in young children whose lungs are still developing. A recent study by the University of Southern California found that a slight decline in L.A.’s ambient air pollution over the last two decades reduced local childhood asthma rates by 20%.

This shows how important it is to optimize the indoor air in schools. Breathing in high concentrations of pollutants aggravates asthma symptoms, and increases the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.

Some of the most common asthma triggers contributing to the rise of school absences due to asthma include dust mites, pests, and mold. Other triggers include VOCs, PM2.5, and carbon dioxide (CO2). All of these are more common in old buildings, like the buildings that make up most public schools.

Breathing ambient particles (PM2.5) pollution can cause health effects such as chronic airway swelling and irritation, which is especially dangerous for people with preexisting respiratory conditions like asthma.

Download our guide to IAQ in Schools

Poor Indoor Air Quality in Schools

Asthma has a negative impact on children’s school life. Children spend an average of seven hours a day in school, and that doesn’t include before- and after-school activities. Removing the causes of asthma flare ups in schools, and reducing school absences due to asthma, means attacking a range of factors related to indoor air quality standards for school buildings with these metrics:

  • PM2.5. Particulate Matter 2.5, can trigger asthma. (Recent findings even point to particulate matter or aerosols acting as carriers for the virus that causes COVID-19.) Many schools are ill-ventilated and their air is thick with fine dust and particulate matter the eye can’t see.
  • Temperature. Environments that are too warm or too cold can influence a child’s performance and attendance in school. Children with asthma are at higher risk of weather triggering asthma flares when temperature increases.
  • Moisture. A school’s HVAC systems can become inefficient or release unhealthy air with too much too little moisture. Relative humidity levels can cause many respiratory issues. Breathing in humid air activates nerves in the lungs that narrow and tighten the airways, resulting in asthma flare ups.
  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Overexposure to carbon dioxide can impair focus, decision-making, and productivity. A leading study revealed decreasing CO2 causes a 50% increase in participant scores on cognitive function tests. CO2 emissions are a key factor in asthma exacerbation.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs and other toxic chemicals can be found in everyday materials, causing respiratory problems. There have been reports of statistically significant increases in current asthma or related respiratory symptoms with increased levels of VOCs in schools.

Annual funding to keep up school buildings tend to fall short. School administrators need to focus their efforts on providing energy-efficient school facilities that have good indoor air quality, comfortable temperatures, and quality lighting.

Managing Asthma in a School Environment

Without funding, many schools are limited in the steps they can take. Increasing teacher and parent awareness of how important indoor air quality is to the health and safety of students is a low-cost first step that could have a big impact.

To reduce school absences due to asthma, EPA suggests that parents watch for these signs that indoor air quality in schools is affecting their child’s health:

  • Your child complains about asthma or allergy symptoms during certain times of the day or week.
  • Your child feels better when they leave the school but has symptoms again when they return.
  • Other students in the same area have similar issues.
  • Your child recently started working with new or different materials or equipment at school.
  • The school has recently been renovated or refurbished.
  • The school started using new cleaning or pesticide products or practices.

Click here for more facts about asthma in children.

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Monitoring Indoor Air Quality in Schools is Key

The EPA suggests that school administrators should develop a coordinated asthma management plan. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has developed a COVID-19 and Asthma Toolkit for Schools to guide parents and schools as they return to face-to-face classes safely.

School absences due to asthma can be prevented if you involve the community. It is important to work together to eliminate common asthma triggers to alleviate asthma symptoms. School admins and educational boards should promote an asthma-friendly learning environment at school.

Knowledge is power. By proactively monitoring air quality inside classrooms and other school facilities, parents and administrators can begin to solve any IAQ issues.

Awair Omni’s air quality monitoring device will alert you when common asthma triggers like PM2.5 or VOCs are present. It measures five air factors that affect air quality, as well as light and noise.

Now’s the time for school administrators to start exploring how improving indoor air quality in schools can effectively reduce school absences due to asthma.

Once you understand what your IAQ issues are, it can be straightforward and easy to apply the right course of action. From monitoring, comes solutions.

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