Federal Dateline

Keeping the Feds Out of Your Airspace


As classes conclude for the year, most students and teachers are planning their summer vacations, with nary a thought about the places they are vacating for the next 2½ months. But many superintendents and their assistants will spend the same time thinking about and monitoring renovation and repair of school buildings.

It is much easier to do renovation projects such as painting and installations over the extended summer break when workers do not need to adjust to school activities. It is also safer to conduct repairs and renovations because it will minimize the exposure of students and staff to potentially harmful airborne substances.

No federal laws or regulations define what constitutes quality indoor air in school buildings, other than limits for industrial pollutants. While a growing number of states are passing laws to regulate indoor air quality in schools, AASA is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to forestall any federal mandates in this arena. By voluntarily enacting preventive measures within their schools, district administrators will be more likely to keep the federal regulators in abeyance.

When school leaders plan and carry out construction projects, they should keep in mind the four potential causes of indoor air problems: demolition that releases toxic materials; construction dust and fumes; designs that interfere with ventilation; and off-gassing from building materials and new products. Schools east of the Rocky Mountains must remember to operate air conditioners or dehumidifiers during the summer months to prevent mold growth. Painting, flooring and roofing activities also need special precautions to ensure a healthy school environment.

If there are plans to paint school buildings internally or externally this summer, keep these suggestions in mind. Special care should be taken when sanding painted surfaces in preparation of new paint due to the dust released into the air. The dust may contain lead.

Check painting records or old paint cans to determine whether the old paint is lead-free. Exposure to excessive levels of lead could affect a child’s mental growth and interfere with nervous system development, which could cause learning disabilities and impaired hearing. In adults, lead can increase blood pressure.

During interior painting, minimize occupant exposure to odors and pollutants. Schedule the task when the area is unoccupied and allow time for paint odors to dissipate before students and staff return. If this work is done during business hours, isolate the work area from the occupied spaces. Be sure to run supply and exhaust fans continuously during the project. Also use appropriate storage and disposal practices for paints, solvents and clean-up materials.

If new flooring materials are in order for your buildings, keep to these practices. Select floor materials that are low in emissions of volatile organic compounds and that do not require harsh chemicals for cleaning. New products contain volatile materials, such as resins, solvents, and binders, which emit volatile organic compounds for a period of time.

Allow adequate time for off-gassing before reoccupying the area and increase ventilation with outdoor air to minimize occupant exposure. Examples of products that may need time to off-gas include: wall paneling, draperies, composite wood furniture and cabinets, cubicle dividers, carpet and vinyl flooring, paints and finishes.

Be sure adhesives used to secure the flooring are recommended by the manufacturer and the room is well ventilated during installation. If possible, unwrap, unroll and air out the new flooring materials in a site other than classrooms, along with any cushioning materials.

Before laying the new floor, clean the subfloor surface to reduce the release of particles such as dirt, dust and biological compounds into the air and into the new carpet or vinyl. Vacuum or clean the new surface to remove loose matter generated by the installation process and other general construction in the area.

Installing a new roof this summer? Roofing materials often contain tar or other pollutant-producing chemicals that may cause indoor air problems if fumes enter the building.

Schedule pollutant-producing activities when the building is unoccupied. Set tar and other pollutant-producing materials away from outdoor air intakes, which often are located on the roof. Also consider the wind patterns at the work sites and arrange equipment so breezes carry the odors away from the buildings and occupants.

Kari Arfstrom directs AASA’s program on school air quality funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. E-mail: karfstrom@aasa.org. She can provide Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kits and related information.