The tragedy of 9/11 changed the way Americans live, work, and play. It also changed the way school administrators look at indoor air quality (IAQ) and its affect on schoolchildren and teachers. The disaster focused national attention on school IAQ when the New York City Board of Education (BOE) was forced to clean up the seven public schools in the impact zone of the World Trade Center tragedy.

The cleanup effort that followed the disaster was documented in a book titled Schools of Ground Zero: Early Lessons Learned in Children’s Environmental Health. The book was written by journalist Sarah Bartlett and architect John Petrarca, two parents in Lower Manhattan. The book was commissioned by Healthy Schools Network Inc. (HSN), Albany, N.Y., and co-published by the American Public Health Association (APHA) to tell the story of the seven public schools and 6,000 students near Ground Zero from a parent’s perspective.

In the book’s preface, Virginia Fields, Manhattan Borough president, wrote, “This report … clearly shows that among the many successes involved with enabling students to return safely to their schools, there were also some problems.

“We must remember, however, that there was a lack of precedence for such events. Furthermore, this tragedy has provided an opportunity to develop policies and procedures that should better equip parents, teachers, school administrators, and the BOE to respond to future disasters in the short and long term.”

The local parents' association was critical of the IAQ at Stuyvesant High School in the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse. (Photo courtesy of the American Public Health Association.)

A Daunting Task

The challenges faced by the BOE were massive, and the same challenges face school boards across the United States on a smaller scale. How the BOE dealt with IAQ issues is a reflection of how other school boards can be expected to step up and deal with health problems of school building occupants.

Claire Barnett, HSN executive director, said, “There are virtually no standards for indoor environmental quality, and no agency at any level responsible for providing guidance, regulations, or resources to parents and students, who are more vulnerable to environmental toxins and who have the same exposures as their teachers. Employees and union members have rights and recourses for exposures in their workplaces that are simply not available to parents of similarly exposed students.

“A study of 300 teachers returned to Stuyvesant High School [located in World Trade Center impact zone] revealed that 60 percent had health effects into the spring; there was no similar study conducted on the 3,000 students at Stuyvesant, including 27 special education students co-located there. A survey of parents of elementary students conducted by the HSN indicated that a substantial proportion of elementary students also had health effects persisting into the spring of 2002.”

When asked by The News if there was anything that school boards or administrators could do to promote healthy indoor environments in schools, Barnett stated, “School boards and administrators are responsible for providing a safe and healthy school environment. I have come to believe, however, that just as the fish will be the last species to discover water, that school administrators will be the last species to discover facility environments.

“Since no standards have been set for children, we discourage ‘testing,’ since the results often come up ‘safe’ while the building occupants are still sick. Training and education are fine; preventive actions are even better.”

One High School Under The Microscope

According to Bartlett and Petrarca, the Stuyvesant High School Parents’ Association had been highly critical of the BOE’s performance in handling the school’s IAQ problems, including the following complaints:

  • Filters that were supposed to have been fitted onto the school’s unit ventilators allegedly took so long to order and install that the students and staff were in the building for four months before the work was completed.

  • The association stated that the BOE had not thoroughly cleaned the school’s ventilation ducts prior to the students’ return.

  • Because of the type of central air system that was installed at Stuyvesant when it was built, the BOE’s consultants concluded that it was only realistic to upgrade the filters to make them 40 percent efficient.

    Some of the problems in IAQ testing at Stuyvesant are typical of the difficulties posed by testing and remediation across the United States. For example, many experts disagree about how to test IAQ and interpret the results.

    After the collapse of the World Trade Center, the U.S. Geological Survey sent in a team to the school buildings to analyze the dust from the debris. The team determined that the dust had a pH of 9.5 to 10.5, making the caustic qualities of the dust equal to liquid drain cleaner, according to the book’s authors.

    Bartlett and Petrarca state that “virtually all government standards for what is considered an acceptable level of toxicity or combination make the assumption that the subjects in question are 150 pound white men. Little thought has been given to coming up with standards for young children who breathe more air per pound of weight into bodies that are still developing.”

    Howard Bader, president of H.A. Bader Consultants Inc., New York City, said in an Oct. 25, 2001 letter to the Stuyvesant High School Parents’ Association, “The dust levels in the school are unacceptable and represent a potential health concern. This is of particular concern because the composition of the dust and potential health effects is not completely known.

    “The HVAC filtration system should be upgraded as soon as possible. The school perimeter roads and walkways should be HEPA vacuumed and wet cleaned as required to reduce dust levels.”

    The New York City School Construction Authority had requested a bid from TDX Construction Corp. of Long Island City for cleaning up Stuyvesant. The estimate to complete work while the school was open was $1.5 million. The estimate to do the work while the school was closed was $1.2 million.

    Bartlett and Petrarca went on to propose some changes based on the aftermath of the tragedy. Their recommendations included:

  • All urban schools should have their ventilation systems thoroughly reviewed by experts who understand the special vulnerability of children to environmental hazards. If need be, higher levels of filtration should be installed so that school children are not exposed to disturbingly high levels of contaminants in the air. All newly constructed schools should be required to be equipped with more sophisticated filtering and ventilation systems so that future students are not exposed to similar health risks.

  • Repairs and maintenance that will result in airborne particulates should not be done when schools are in session; and nontoxic cleaning materials should become standard issue in all schools so that children’s health is not put at risk.

  • Research should be done to help formulate appropriate environmental standards for children in schools.

    Barnett added that it is important to involve the community in school IAQ issues. “Provide the community with information and maintain open communications,” she suggested. “Nothing travels faster than bad news, so we recommend that schools stop the bad news by being open about the facility needs and health effects of contaminants. Prevention is the cure for most bad press.”

    Tools For Schools

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Air and Radiation, Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, Indoor Environments Division, each school day, one in five Americans occupies a school building. The EPA has produced an “IAQ Tools for Schools” kit, which was designed to show schools “how to carry out a practical plan of action to improve indoor air problems at little or no cost, using straightforward activities and in-house staff.” The kit is co-sponsored by the National PTA, National Education Association, Council for American Private Education, Association of School Business Officials, American Federation of Teachers, and the American Lung Association.

    “IAQ Tools for Schools offers sound guidance that gives school officials the ability to improve indoor air quality and create a healthier environment for children and staff,” said Jacqueline D. McLeod, president of the American Lung Association.

    The EPA stresses that good IAQ “can contribute to a favorable learning environment for children and better productivity for teachers and staff.

    “As each day passes, the 110,000 kindergarten through twelfth-grade schools in the U.S. are spending increasing amounts of their limited resources — time and money — in attempts to fix real or perceived indoor air quality problems.”

    A report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, titled “Condition of America’s Schools” (GAO Report HEHS-95-61, February 1995), notes that over half of the schools surveyed reported at least one environmental problem which affects indoor air quality. The voluntary guidance in the IAQ Tools for Schools kit can save schools time and money so that attention can be directed to educating children, according to the EPA.

    The kit includes checklists for all school employees, a step-by-step guide for coordinating the checklists, an Indoor Air Quality Problem Solving Wheel, a fact-sheet on indoor air pollution issues, and sample policies and memos.

    In addition to the kit, the EPA, in conjunction with the cast and crew of the popular television series “This Old House,” has produced a short video about how to properly operate and maintain ventilation systems in schools.

    “Both the National School Boards Association [] and the American Association of School Administrators [] have endorsed the ‘Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program,’ ” said Barnett. “At minimum, boards and administrators should become familiar with that program and schools nearby that have benefited from implementation. Since there are no standards on IAQ for children’s environmental health, the best way to ensure that the facility is healthful is to maintain an open complaint process in which issues are handled routinely and quickly as part of the normal course of events.”

    Contractor Opportunities?

    Jim Matheson is a professional engineer and president of Matheson-Ball & Associates Inc., Roswell, Ga. His consulting engineering firm furnishes services to over 20 school systems in Georgia. Matheson sees many opportunities for HVACR contractors in the school renovation market.

    “For buildings over 10 years old, I foresee a large market in the renovation of outdoor air pre-treatment,” Matheson said. “The recent public awareness of IAQ will require building owners to address humidity issues associated with existing HVAC systems in the Southeast. As the cost of packaged equipment directed at this application decreases and the need to improve IAQ increases, contractors should see new opportunities for retrofit business.

    “Many of the older buildings contain little or no outdoor air pretreatment prior to introduction into the primary A/C system. In the Southeast, this can cause elevated humidity levels within the building during the transitional seasons, when the primary cooling coil is providing limited cooling and, therefore, very little dehumidification.

    “Additional IAQ improvements should include improved filtration systems and cleaning or replacement of mold-contaminated products, such as rigid ductwork, flexible ductwork, drain pans, and exposed internal insulation.

    “Installation contractors and service providers should both see improved sales in these areas.”

    Salvatore Fichera, president of F&G Mechanical Corp., Secaucus, N.J., said it is the role of the HVACR contractor to educate the people who operate and maintain school buildings.

    “We need to educate the operating engineer or manager about operation of the system,” said Fichera. “Most of the time, we find that a unit is operating on auto cycle and not on occupied cycle — continuous fan operation. When the unit operates on auto cycle, it will provide outdoor air only when the unit is running on cooling or heating cycle.

    “In this region, 90 percent of the school operation is during winter months and, due to higher outdoor air requirements and the drier climate, humidification is part of the mechanical system. The design-build mechanical contractor, using a feasibility study, can implement humidification in the existing system.

    “The contractor can also implement commissioning of the HVAC system at regular intervals to verify proper functioning of the ventilation system, filter change, and indoor air analysis.”

    Publication date: 01/27/2003