Recommendations for healthier air can help reduce the spread of airborne viruses in schools and other congregate spaces.
New indoor air improvement announcements by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and ASHRAE offer plenty of optimism for healthier learning environments in the future and signal that more work is needed to reap their benefits.
Those were sentiments shared during the Healthy Air panel discussion hosted by Primary.Health and Poppy. The companies partner to provide affordable indoor air safety programs to help schools and congregate living spaces meet the new standards.
Among other guidance, updated CDC ventilation recommendations suggest that school buildings get at least five air changes per hour of clean air in occupied spaces.
ASHRAE’s draft of its standard for maintaining healthy indoor air quality (IAQ) provides minimum requirements for HVAC-related measures to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19, influenza, and other airborne viruses in homes, offices, schools, and hospitals during periods of high risk.
The new recommendations “are long in the making for those of us fighting to reduce the transmission of infectious diseases,” said Primary.Health CEO Andrew Kobylinski, who kicked off the panel discussion.
Indoor air is usually worse than outdoor air
“Respiratory viruses have been in schools and causing illness forever, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that we gave them serious thought,” said David O’Connor, Phd, a University of Wisconsin Medical Foundation professor of pathology & laboratory medicine. Dr. O’Connor has monitored air quality in schools and congregate spaces for several years.
“Just as we think about food intake and its effect on our health, we need to think about air intake as well,” added Rachel Keith, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Louisville, who studies the environment’s impact on community health. Even at low levels, pollutants in and around schools – exhaust from the carpool line and fumes from flooring, for example – can sometimes trigger asthma in students and cardiac events in adults, she said.
She said that indoor air is worse than outdoor air, with few exceptions.
With both sets of indoor air standards announced only last week, it is premature to set specific targets for resulting improvements, both experts agreed. “We don’t have any magic bullets to bend the needle on kids out sick,” said Dr. O’Connor. “We do know there’s a link between better air quality and level of infection. When new air standards are in place, the ‘superspreader’ events we feared during the pandemic will eventually be less disruptive, he predicts.
Dr. Keith also cautioned against expecting an immediate drop in infection rates. “It may take up to ten years to see measurable changes” from the standards, she said.
Besides the wait for results, it’s important to consider competing priorities facing schools and to offer low-touch, affordable solutions that will be attractive to school administrators, Dr. O’Connor continued. Noise, cost, and implementation difficulty of solutions are often deal-breakers for school decision-makers.
Primary.Health helps schools assess breathing level air flow with certified EOA (Equivalent Outside Air) scores based on the latest ASHRAE standards and suggests short- and long-term improvements.
Educating school staff about mitigation efforts also can be a powerful motivator, added Erin Doucet, head of implementation for Poppy. Poppy and Primary.Health recently completed an air safety monitoring pilot for 13 Head Start facilities in California.
Parents as catalysts for healthy air
Parents concerned about air quality in schools should advocate for improvements, the panelists noted. Advocacy can include asking about air safety during parent-teacher and school board meetings and inquiring about air purifiers, air filters, and other mitigation efforts when visiting your child’s school.“The role of advocacy cannot be understated,” said Dr. O’Connor, who worked in HIV/AIDS research for twenty years. “If you want to see policy change, bring people together around common goals.”
Ultimately, air quality numbers don’t lie. “Transparency of school air quality data drives administrators to action,” concluded Kobylinski.