As children across the UK return to schools, we turn our attention to their indoor air quality.
Children spend approximately 1,000 hours in the classroom every year, and with a growing body of evidence highlighting the link between exposure to air pollution and the severity of coronavirus symptoms, it is more important than ever to ensure that children are exposed to clean air as they start to return to school.
A significant proportion of indoor air pollutants come from outside sources. For example, particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen oxide (NOX) from vehicle emissions can penetrate through buildings or can simply enter into the classroom through open doors and windows.
However, many dangerous air pollutants are also generated inside. One major source is volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which come from building materials, cleaning or teaching products and certain types of paints. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is no ‘safe level of exposure to VOCs.’
In the UK, 1 in 11 children suffer from asthma, this is more than any other country in Europe and indoor air pollution is a major cause. These statistics mean that 1.1 million children across the UK are now seen as vulnerable in the face of COVID-19, highlighting the urgent need to clean up our indoor air.
Another worrying indoor air pollutant is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is often prominent in a classroom setting because it is generated by the children themselves.
If you have 50 children in a classroom, all exhaling CO2 in a room with poor ventilation, then you can quickly reach a situation where children are being exposed to dangerous levels of pollution. Mitigating CO2 is particularly important in a classroom setting because exposure is linked to behavioural issues, a difficulty to focus and headaches.
If we want to provide children with the best opportunities in the classroom, then clean air is an essential part of the puzzle.
Prashant Kumar, chair of air quality and health at the University of Surrey and founding director of the Global Centre for Clean Air Research told Air Quality News: ‘There are many actionable ways that schools can improve indoor air pollution, from restricting the number of doors and windows that are open during peak traffic times, planting hedges around roads to mitigate the pollution all together, or by ensuring that the classroom has adequate ventilation.
‘Proper ventilation is important now more than ever before, it is essential for preventing the spread of coronavirus, but it is also essential to prevent air pollutants like CO2 from becoming trapped inside the classroom.
‘Some solutions are simple and actionable, but we need to come up with a way where everyone can do their bit to mitigate indoor air pollution. We need to involve children, parents, councils and environmental groups.
‘When you put everything on the table, everyone has a role to play.’
This article first appeared in the July issue of the Air Quality News magazine, which you can read here.