Indoor air quality has a potentially significant impact on both ‘health’ and ‘learning.’ Building codes address ‘health’ – but not ‘learning’. In this article we will discuss its impact on learning. The sources of all facts used can be found in the Bibliography.
Scientific research has now shown that it is entirely possible that a schools indoor air quality can lower students performance one or two letter grades, and still meet all the legal requirements for a “healthy” building.
(In addition to learning issues, there are three main health risks. We do not discuss those in this article. To learn more in depth about them, go back to the Home page, and from among the boxes at the bottom select the menus having to do with Asthma, Radon, or Lead in drinking water. There you will find in-depth articles, bibliography, and a list of tools and ways you can investigate them.)
A key fact to understand is that once a building is constructed, with few exceptions there are no requirements that it be modified up to new standards. If it was built to allow the windows to open, but because of efforts to save money, or prevent intruders they have now been sealed shut, indoor air quality suffers – legally.
The air inside a classroom can have dozens of ingredients, contributed to by cleaning products, classroom experiments, outside air pollution pumped into the room, and many other sources. Testing for all those ingredients is complicated and costly.
The source of all indoor air quality regulation is The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE. This organization is the leading professional society in the world dealing with controlling indoor air and setting the standards that buildings are supposed to be built and operate under. They also make recommendations, which are not standards, and are not binding on local officials.
You can buy a complete set of the latest standards and recommendations, published in 2016, here.
But these standards and recommendation have nothing to do with ‘learning,’ or how the brain functions at different levels of oxygen or other ingredients in the air.
CO2 is created in a building when people inhale oxygen rich air, use up the oxygen, and exhale CO2. So crowded spaces or spaces with poor systems to bring in more oxygen rich air from outside can have high and rising levels of CO2 – which makes the brain work less well.
In the following graph, look at how our brains work in 9 different categories of mental functioning (look below the columns for the kind of mental activity being measured), under 3 different levels of ‘healthy’ air. Notice the dramatic difference in brain function between the white circles at 600 ppm of CO2 and the black circles at 2,500 ppm of CO2.
ASHRAE actually recommends that CO2 levels be held to 1,000 ppm. Unfortunately, it is not a legally binding standard – it is only a recommendation – and because of their age, most school buildings were not built to meet it. See page 35 here:
Why do building designers and builders measure CO2 at all?
Think of the CO2 reading as being similar to the “check engine” or “service needed” light on your car’s dashboard. If the light starts flashing, you know to take the car to a service station. That blinking light could be triggered by a broken water pump, a leak in the cooling system, a failing gas tank, or many other things. In the case of schools, one measured CO2 because if you detect high levels, you know it is time to call in the experts.
The primary way engineers keep a building ‘healthy’ is to throw away used air, and bring in fresh air. They do this by using fans to import fresh air for every room occupant. If not enough replacement air is pumped in, CO2 rises, and the result is a building not optimal for learning.
Your school building could meet the legal standards for ‘health’ and yet all the occupants could be temporarily stupid for much of the day.
Many years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense studied environments like submarines and airplane cockpits. Armed forces members working in these enclosed spaces were observed making careless mistakes while learning, or while executing tasks they had successfully performed many times before. In such confined spaces CO2 levels rise, and the Defense Department found a direct correlation between these rising levels and the occupants’ ability to do their jobs. Mistakes rose when the CO2 level was too high.
So, even if architects design a new school to ASHRAE standards, and the builders build it to ASHRAE standards, and the air conditioning people install air conditioning equipment that meets ASHRAE standards, you can still have a school where it is difficult for children to learn. No matter how hard the teacher works, or how many books the child has at home, or how attentive the parents are, if the CO2 level in a building is above 600 ppm plus that found in the outside are (usually around 350-400), learning is impaired. And this is reflected in lower standardized test scores, and poor school reputations.
So why would a school system ever have high CO2 levels? The answer is pretty simple once you connect all the dots.
The primary way ASHRAE engineers keep a building ‘healthy’ is by throwing away used air and bringing in fresh. This is where it gets tricky, since energy is usually one of the largest expense categories for any school system, a very close second only to payroll expenses. The way many building maintenance staff cut energy costs is by slowing down the intake of fresh air and leaving a bit more already-conditioned air inside the building. This results in less hot or cold air from the outside that needs to be expensively treated, and energy bills go down, all while staying within ASHRAE guidelines – but making learning harder.
To see how you can measure indoor air quality, go to the page containing the list of tools available, found here. We may be able to lend those or similar tools to students so they can investigate their own learning environments.
You will also find a library of techniques that can be used to improve the amount of oxygen in the air of the classroom – some of which are low, or no cost. Some of these the students can implement themselves, and learn a great deal in the process. And for those techniques that require more of a monetary investment, the rate of return often exceeds 20% annually because of a reduction in student and teacher absence (which requires spending money on substitute teachers while still paying the sick teacher – not including the increase in learning.