updated 3/4/2004 2:54:39 PM ET 2004-03-04T19:54:39

For school officials in many districts, indoor air quality boils down to one simple issue: If you can’t breathe, you can’t learn.

“The biggest thing is that we’re indoors more. We’ve become an inside generation,” said Dr. Barbara Townsend, operations director for Huber Heights City Schools. “And (studies have) found that there is a connection between health and indoor air quality.”

It’s an issue that this suburban Dayton school district’s administration has met head on — and to national acclaim. In August, 2002, Huber Heights City School District was among 20 select schools and districts to receive the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Excellence Award.

In 1995, EPA developed the voluntary Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Kit and Program in response to government studies highlighting the deteriorating conditions of the nations’ schools and the alarming rise in asthma cases, particularly among school-and preschool-age children.

The kit contains methods and procedures on establishing building-level IAQ teams and maintaining healthy indoor air quality.

About that same time, Huber Heights City Schools also became interested in the issue and became involved in the Tools for Schools program. Townsend and maintenance director Dave Manning organized an IAQ team at each school and conducted workshops to train staff on the program.

The district maintains indoor air quality by such simple items as regular filter changes and using antibacterial tablets to inhibit mold and mildew in air conditioning units. The district also looks to more expensive actions like replacing carpet with tile and linoleum, replacing exhaust fans or large HVAC units to provide better ventilation and comfort.

Not an easy fix
Extensive masonry repairs, roof maintenance and replacement to inhibit water intrusion into buildings, which can cause mold growth, have also been completed, Townsend said. The district’s pest program now uses more baits and traps instead of chemical pesticides in its battle against bugs.

Indoor air quality expenditures top $1 million annually, Townsend said.

“We’re watching everything,” she said. “Fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t have thought about what walls were made of or how we clean it.”

Today, the district asks those questions before using a particular product. The district now also samples cleaning products for noxious odors or side effects rather than using something because it had always been used in the past.

Annual projects that generate a lot of fumes — like painting and major cleaning — are done in the summer months when students and staff aren’t around.

It’s not just what the district uses to clean with, it’s what they’re trying to prevent. The growth of possibly toxic mold has administrators concerned as well.

Mold lawsuits increasing
Although most kinds of molds are harmless, several kinds of mold — often referred to as “toxic molds” — have been at the center of a number of lawsuits by homeowners over the last few years.

Experts agree that certain molds have the potential to produce spores that contain potent substances called mycotoxins that can become dangerous when released into the air. The most notorious toxic mold is stachybotrys chartarum, the greenish-black fungus at the center of most of the toxic mold concern. Dangerous allergenic molds, such as penicillium and aspergillius, may be found in buildings as well.

In West Carrollton, another Dayton-area suburb, school officials there are facing a $6 million lawsuit brought by six teachers who claim their health was damaged as a result of toxic molds. Three West Carrollton High School and Middle School teachers contend in their lawsuit, filed in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, that some classrooms in the two school buildings are infested with dangerous black mold that has seriously sickened them and left them unable to teach. One defendant claimed exposure to mold spreading from water leaks in her classroom has left her with a reduced lung capacity, chronic sinus infections and coughing, headaches, weakness, and memory and concentration impairment.

But West Carrollton officials disagreed, saying students are safe because the district has repaired roof leaks at both schools, removed existing molds from water-damaged areas and conducted its own mold testing to assure a safe classroom environment.

The case is still in litigation.

Fresh ideas, cleaner air
Even if a school district is not involved in the EPA’s Tools for Schools program, parents can find out about their district’s indoor air quality. “If your child has any kind of allergies, there are questions you need to ask your school’s leadership team,” Townsend said.

Those questions include not only asking about less toxic methods and frequency of pest control and cleaning, but other things. “Ask what kind of animal policy the district has about that classroom rabbit or aquarium,” Townsend said. “They’re great learning environments, but they can breed mold.”

Since winning the award, Townsend said teachers and principals have become more vigilant about air quality issues.

“Principals know it’s not just books and chalkboards in their buildings, but it’s also the roof,” she said. “It used to be that when the roof leaked, we put a barrel there to catch the water. Today, principals are asking when their buildings are due for a new roof.

“The days of being a blind consumer are gone. The days when we can just accept anything are gone.”

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