- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Harford County School District learned its lesson about addressing air quality issues in its buildings after the fact.

The Bel Air, Md., district battled back mold in its Edgewood Middle School in 2001, convincing it to team up with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stave off any future breathing concerns.

It’s a message the EPA began shouting in earnest a decade ago with the release of its Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools initiative. The program teaches schools how to address potential problems before they hit district coffers, and leave children wheezing for air.

The EPA reports that asthma accounts for 14 million missed school days a year, and that asthma rates in young children have jumped by 160 percent during the last 15 years. Airborne pollutants like asbestos, dust, pollen, mold and chalk can be found in school buildings, particularly those built decades ago.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average school is 42 years old, and typically these buildings begin to rapidly deteriorate after 40 years without proper maintenance.

Teri Kranefeld, publications specialist with the Harford County School District, says Harford officials have clean air coordinators in each building to follow EPA guidelines.

“Every year … we identify who the coordinator is and who needs refresher training,” Mrs. Kranefeld says.

That person is responsible for keeping both school officials and the community aware of potential problems in the buildings.

“When they get new information from the EPA or the American Lung Association, they’re the conduit of information for the project,” Mrs. Kranefeld says.

Among those who should regularly contact the coordinator are the school nurse, the principal, maintenance staffers, teachers and even students and their parents, she says.

“There’s less chance for rumors to spread when a student or parent is on the board,” she says.

Some EPA recommendations — and they are just that, not rigid rules — point to simple solutions.

Older buildings often feature unit ventilators that sit out away from the walls, prompting some to use the ledge space to hold books or even science chemicals, the latter an obvious hazard, she says.

A less glaring but potentially harmful scenario involves installing new carpets.

“Make sure there’s enough time for off-gasing to occur,” she says, explaining that the smell of glue and carpet meshing together can last for a day or two and should not be inhaled.

Dave Rowson, director of the EPA’s Center for Asthma and Schools, says school districts can play an important part in keeping asthma rates at bay.

Mr. Rowson says school conditions generally “got progressively worse in the ‘70s and ‘80s as the nation’s schools started hitting critical ages and also began deferring maintenance, which led to indoor air quality problems.”

He says parents should take their child to the doctor first if any breathing problems occur. “With my kids, if they’re sick I’ll often ask the teacher, the school nurse or the secretary of the school, ‘Is there anything going around the school?’” Mr. Rowson says.

If so, a parent has a right to point it out to a school administrator, who in turn should consider indoor air quality problems as a possible cause.

The Arlington County School District doesn’t have a formal partnership with the EPA, but uses its materials as a reference, says Sarah Woodhead, the district’s director of design and construction.

“They even have sample documents showing how to communicate” within a district should a problem emerge, Ms. Woodhead says. The steps taken within her district include using a minimally invasive pest control service, keeping buildings as clean as possible and providing older buildings with routine mechanical system checks.

“Any small problem, we jump on it right away,” Ms. Woodhead says, recalling an incident when some floor cleaner spilled onto the carpet in one of the district buildings.

“We pulled the carpet out and replaced it,” she says, rather than waiting to see if it would hold the potentially irritating odors.

Efforts to rein in school buildings with air quality problems certainly will help students breathe easier, but Dr. Andrew Shorr of the Washington Hospital Center says researchers can’t say precisely why asthma rates are going up — only that they are.

“There are a lot of hypotheses, ranging from the fact that we’re more conscious of it now, but the figures are well beyond what anyone would have predicted due to that phenomena,” says Dr. Shorr, the Northwest hospital’s associate director of pulmonary and critical care medicine.

Another theory holds that today’s children aren’t exposed to the range of environmental threats as in years past, so immune systems react accordingly and are unprepared when faced with irritants later in life.

“Their immune systems constitute themselves differently,” Dr. Shorr says.

Children who develop asthma can do so in sudden ways.

“Their first asthma event can be life-threatening,” he says, adding that some such cases are brought on by viral infections.

Others discover they have asthma in their teenage years.

“I see adolescents who aren’t doing as well on their soccer teams as they used to,” he says.

Don Morrison, director of public information for Harford schools, says the district will save money over the long haul by attacking problems before they get worse.

“The common-sense approach is not real expensive. It’s not a huge capital investment,” Mr. Morrison says.

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