AUSTIN, TX — When Richard Shaughnessy, Ph.D., zeroed in on indoor air quality (IAQ) issues in U.S. schools, the program manager of IAQ research for the University of Tulsa tried to begin his discussion on the light side.

“The problem begins with the child — and, even worse, the child with a lawyer,” he said.

Shaughnessy was not trying to make light of a very serious problem affecting the nation’s schools: too many IAQ issues and not enough resources for testing and remediation. In truth, the speaker painted a bleak picture of school IAQ for those who attended his seminar at the recent Healthy Indoor Environments (HIE) 2002 Conference.

“A healthy environment is more conducive to learning,” he stressed, adding that IAQ resolutions in schools face challenges for reasons beyond shrinking budgets, including the political “hot potato” that IAQ issues have become, the need for increased maintenance/operations staffing, and the need for trained custodians.

He added that concern for safety has always been paramount to school workers. “I have never worked with a school staff that didn’t care about IAQ problems,” Shaughnessy said. “The real key is how testing can be done without placing additional burdens on a school staff.”

Before looking at possible solutions, Shaughnessy said that the general public should be aware of the consequences of poor school IAQ. He said failure to prevent or quickly resolve problems can:

  • Increase the potential for long-term and short-term health problems such as asthma (considered the No. 1 cause of student absenteeism);

  • Increase absenteeism of students and staff;

  • Reduce productivity for teachers and staff;

  • Accelerate deterioration and reduce efficiency of heating-cooling equipment;

  • Strain relationships among school administration, parents, and staff; and

  • Create potential liability problems.


    Shaughnessy showed HIE attendees slides of poor maintenance procedures within schools, including trash receptacles placed directly in front of outdoor air intakes, clutter in classrooms obstructing return-air vents, terribly clogged air filters, and a wall that was cut away to show where a building contractor had run out of insulation, so bags of trash were poured into the walls.

    He also addressed the issue of carpeting in schools.

    “To carpet or not to carpet is another issue,” said Shaughnessy. “Science needs to tell us a lot more about the differences between hard and soft surfaces.

    “Carpet cannot be considered as a homogeneous group of floor coverings,” he said. “Significant differences may impact the flooring performance over time related to carpet weave type, face weight, pile height, density, backing, and adhesive requirements.”

    Shaughnessy also talked about the issue of keeping animals in schools, citing one school science class that raised cockroaches.


    Shaughnessy said that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a special program, “IAQ Tools for Schools Kit.” This kit is designed to help schools identify and prevent IAQ problems, and to identify and initiate practical, low-cost solutions.

    “The kit provides practical, hands-on recommendations for schools, which can be applied using in-house staff. Following this guidance will equip schools with the necessary means to correct existing problems or prevent future problems from occurring,” he said.

    “[The] EPA is aware of the unique environment in which schools must function, including limited resources and multiple demands on those resources. Therefore, the majority of the activities have been designed to be used as ‘tools’ (as the name of the kit suggests) to address indoor air quality-related problems as time, resources, and funding allow.

    “The most important step that a school district can take to address IAQ problems is to utilize the checklists and tools within the kit to establish a ‘baseline’ assessment of conditions that exist within the schools,” he said. “Armed with this information, the district can prioritize, allocate, and/or appropriate resources and funds to tackle these issues in the future.”

    As such, the EPA Tools for Schools program should not be perceived as one that will achieve overnight success within the district, he said. Rather, it should be used to develop a long-term plan to effectively prevent future problems and address existing ones on a case-by-case basis, he said.

    “While many potential problems can be resolved through simple measures of tweaking a system, or education of occupants as to the effect of their activities on IAQ, others may require a long-term effort to include education, proper maintenance and operation, and an ongoing plan to prevent poor indoor air in school buildings,” he said.

    Shaughnessy suggested that school administrators develop a “building profile.” These profiles are for the benefit of the district since, as he said, “Buildings are constructed differently and the only thing they have in common is the children.”

    When reviewing IAQ policies within school buildings, Shaughnessy said the most basic measures are often the most effective.

    “Filtration is one of the most undervalued tools that we have available to us,” he said. “Don’t ever think of new, unsubstantiated products as replacements for proper maintenance programs.”

    For more information on EPA’s approach to dealing with IAQ problems in schools, visit (website), or contact Shaughnessy at (e-mail).

    Publication date: 06/03/2002