A healthy, resting adult takes 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
Children, from school-age to preschoolers and younger, take many more. It’s normal for a toddler to take twice as many breaths as an adult, and an infant may take a full three times more.
Every breath matters, especially for their developing lungs, but more than a third of all Americans live in communities where air quality does not meet national standards for ozone or other air pollutants, according to 2017 data from the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, the EPA reports that half of the 115,000 schools in the United States have problems linked to indoor air quality. Considering that more than 6 million American children have asthma, these air quality problems are especially worrisome.
How can parents and teachers help children breathe easier? Here’s what you need to know about air quality in and around schools, and what you can do to improve it.
Almost 55 million students and 7 million staff members spend their days in school facilities across the country. If you and your loved ones are among them, you might be inhaling a host of indoor pollutants, including PCBs, asbestos, volatile irritant chemicals from cleaning products, radon, and even mold. In addition to triggering health problems such as headaches and asthma, poor indoor air quality can result in lower school grades and more days missed due to sickness.
The good news: Administrators, teachers and families have tools to improve indoor air quality in schools. Many of these tools are similar to those you may use in your own home. The EPA offers an Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit that provides guidelines, best practices, sample policies and a sample management plan. Areas to focus on include improving HVAC systems, maintaining filters and carbon monoxide detectors, controlling moisture and mold, managing pests, and carefully selecting cleaning and building materials.
The EPA does not require schools to monitor their air quality, submit information about it or use these voluntary tools, so it’s important for parents to speak up. Share the action kit with your school and talk to decision makers about what they’re doing to improve indoor air quality. Here are additional recommendations for parents, particularly those whose children suffer from asthma.
Some states and school districts have specific policies or regulations to improve indoor air quality. To learn about your area, visit the Environmental Law Institute’s database of state indoor air quality laws.
When students step outside school buildings for fresh air, that air might not be so fresh. Pollutants such as smoke, road dust, car exhaust and factory emissions can all add up to poor quality air. And some days are better than others.
How can you tell the difference? Check your local Air Quality Index. The daily index reports how polluted your air is and what it means for your health. Among other pollutants, the index tests for the two most hazardous types of air pollution: ground-level ozone, or smog, and airborne particles.
Children are particularly sensitive to air pollution, so when air quality is rated orange – “unhealthy for sensitive groups” – it might be wise to limit prolonged periods outdoors and avoid heavy exertion, including outdoor sports.
Some school districts adjust recess and outdoor play based on air quality. Ask your children’s school about its air quality policies and share the EPA’s Air Quality Index Toolkit for Teachers. To find your Air Quality Index, search by zip code on AirNow.com, sign up for email alerts on EnviroFlash.info, or check local weather reports on television or in the newspaper.
Do you see buses idling outside your children’s school? Diesel exhaust can damage lungs, irritate eyes and throats, and trigger asthma or allergies, so check out these tips and tools for reducing bus idling. These resources are designed not just for schools, but for students, parents and community members, as well. Talk to your kids about why air quality matters and encourage them to get involved, too.