When looking for the best school for your child we typically ask the school about their teaching methods, board affiliation, security, other people’s experiences, extracurricular activities, etc., very often overlooking one of the most important issues facing our children today: air pollution. While many of us are generally aware of the worsening outdoor air quality during Diwali, crop burning, and heavy traffic times, many don’t think about it being an issue inside. Studies consistently rank indoor air pollution amongst the top four environmental health risks to the public as people spend up to 90 per cent of their time indoors where levels of pollutants may be as much as two to five times higher than outdoor levels! Indoor air contaminants include carbon monoxide, particulate matter (PM), ozone, lead, mercury, asbestos, microorganisms, and allergens (i.e. dust mites, pests, and moulds), amongst others.
Recent surveys report that approximately 35 per cent of school-age children in India suffer from poor lung health, including asthma and other respiratory illnesses, with children in NCR ranking the worst affected with 4 out of 10 having ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ lung capacity. Experts tell us that by the time a child living in Gurgaon turns 10, he or she would have smoked up to an equivalent of a few thousand cigarettes. The damage to children’s lungs, health, and life expectancy is severe and largely irreversible.
According to the US’ Environmental Protection Agency, in addition to health symptoms in both adults and children such as headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, sinus congestion, coughing, sneezing, eye/nose/throat irritation, dizziness, or nausea, other effects of indoor air pollution in schools include negative impacts on teacher and staff performance, reduced student performance due to discomfort and absences, an accelerated deterioration and reduced efficiency of the school’s physical plant and equipment, and increased potential for school closings.
Globally, educators are becoming more aware of the importance of indoor air quality and thinking about how to combat the potential issues caused by high levels of contaminants. Some good practises include thoughtful building design, increasing ventilation, installing air purification or filtration systems, training maintenance and housekeeping staff on healthy cleaning materials, implementing procedures for cleaning with certain products, and removing pollution sources. Temperature and humidity are also important concerns in school settings because they not only affect indoor contaminant levels, but may also affect air temperature and thermal comfort, both of which can also cause distractions and prevent students and teachers from paying attention during lessons.
Research conducted in Gurgaon by the Global Schools’ Alliance in 2015 showed that nearly 70 per cent of parents believed that while schools understood the importance of children breathing clean air, they did not think that their children’s schools placed an importance on or cared enough to install expensive air filtration systems in their buildings. It will take time for the government to institute regulatory action and, once in place, for pollutants in NCR’s air to dissipate. Until this happens, schools must be at the forefront of the fight to protect India’s youngest citizens from the dangers of breathing toxic air. That said, some schools in NCR are leading the charge by implementing measures to combat the effects of the region’s poisonous air on children in the places where they spend a majority of their time.
The American Embassy and German schools in Delhi measure air quality and restrict students’ outdoor activities on days when pollution levels are especially high. American student athletes are also required to wear masks when training outdoors when PM2.5 levels are above 300. You can track, in real-time, air quality online at Air Quality Index’s website. Both the American Embassy School and Lycée Français de Delhi have also invested in indoor air filters. In addition to an indoor sports hall for children to play in during high pollution days, Vega Schools in Gurgaon has incorporated a centralised air purification system into their new building’s design. The air treatment and control unit draws in ambient air from outside, cleans it through filters and MERV13 – freeing it of PM10 and PM 2.5 – and bringing it to a comfortable temperature. All zones have CO² sensors, modulating dampers, pressure sensors, and variable frequency drives that ensure a concentration of CO² within the prescribed limits is maintained.
Incorporating air treatment units cleans the air as much as 50 to 90 per cent over conventional filtration and natural ventilation and several recent studies show a strong correlation between cleaner air and improved student performances. Additional benefits include improved health and lower risk of risk of particle-related hospital admissions as well as increased daily attendance for students and teachers, higher test scores, reduced operating costs, increased teacher satisfaction and retention, and reduced environmental impacts and liability exposure.
What you don’t know CAN hurt you so ask your top choice schools what they are doing to ensure child health during high pollution days and to keep their air clean.