Sick School Buildings Research Paper Starter

Sick School Buildings

(Research Starters)

The pollution and toxic problems of public school buildings can make students and school staff sick. Information about the causes of sick building syndrome and mold are also included in this article, as well as information on building-related illness and how it differs from sick building syndrome, environmental conditions and problems, and indoor air quality. The estimated number of schools that have air quality and environmental issues and the cost to remediate these issues are also included.

Keywords Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act of 1984; Building Related Illness; Education Infrastructure Act of 1994; Environmental Conditions; Indoor Air Quality; Mold; Public Schools; Remediation; Sick Building Syndrome


Sick building syndrome describes a situation in which a building's occupants have health and comfort issues that seem to be linked to the amount of time they spend in the building. Usually, no specific illness or cause is identified. Sick building syndrome can occur throughout a building, in an area of a building, or localized in only one room of a building. Some indicators of a sick building include occupants' complaining of symptoms such as:

• Headaches;

• Eye, nose, or throat irritations;

• Persistent cough;

• Dizziness;

• Nausea;

• Fatigue; and

• Difficulty concentrating.

In addition, the cause of the symptoms is not known, and most of the people complaining of the symptoms find relief after they leave the building.

Building related illness is a term used when symptoms of a diagnosed illness are due to airborne building contaminants. Building related illness can be detected when occupants begin complaining of conditions like:

• Coughing,

• Chest tightness,

• Fever,

• Chills and muscle aches;

The symptoms can be clinically defined and have an identifiable cause, and the people complaining of the symptoms may require prolonged recovery times after they leave the building (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2007a).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (2007a), 75 percent of the nation's schools were built before 1970, and the current average age of a school is 42 years. This can be troublesome because many older schools have not received proper preventive maintenance over the years, which can lead to sick buildings and poor indoor air quality.

However, these problems are not limited to only older school buildings. New buildings can have issues with mold, air quality, and other environmental problems. Sometimes it can be something simple. One new school had students and staff getting sick shortly after the school opened; all complained of allergy-like symptoms. It was determined that dust left over from the construction was the culprit, creating the air quality issues. With new construction, however, schools and districts have a chance of recouping all the costs associated with cleanup by using legal means to recover the money from the builders or others associated with the construction and completion of the project (Buchanan, 2007).

According to a 1996 U.S. General Accounting Office report on school facilities (based on the estimates of school officials), about one-third of the nation's schools needed massive repair of one or more buildings, and 60 percent of schools considered to be in a decent state said that there was still a major feature of the building that needed to be fixed. They estimated that over $112 billion was needed to repair or upgrade facilities in order for them to be deemed “in good condition.” Almost “half the schools reported at least one environmental issue, such as inadequate ventilation or heating or lighting issues” (United States General Accounting Office, 1996, p. 1). A 2000 study of the infrastructure of the nation's schools by the National Education Association still found that approximately 33 percent of the nation's school buildings need major repairs or total replacement. Environmental conditions, such as leaking roofs, which can facilitate mold growth; poor ventilation systems; and old, dirty carpets were listed among the repair problems that needed to be addressed. That same report estimated that the total cost for school modernization was $322 billion, which is almost three times the estimate the U.S. General Accounting Office gave five years earlier (Dunne, 2001).

There are schools in adequate and inadequate condition in every state and type of community. However, certain subgroups, including central cities, the western part of the nation, large schools, schools with at least 50 percent minority students, and schools with at least 70 percent poor students, tend to have more building problems than other schools (United States General Accounting Office, 1996).

Causes of Sick Building Syndrome

Many elements can contribute to a sick building. They can act in combination with each other; and may also be reinforced by other complaints about the building's temperature, humidity, or lighting. According to the EPA, the following have been shown to cause or contribute to sick building syndrome (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2007a):

• Inadequate ventilation. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, building ventilation codes were changed to reduce the outdoor air ventilation rates. The rate reduction of outdoor air ventilation was later found to be insufficient to retain health and provide comfortable ammenities for residents. Poor ventilation can result from a building's heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems that might not work well enough to move air freely throughout the rooms and floors.

• Indoor chemical contaminants. Most indoor air pollution is the result of what is inside the building. Items that are capable of emitting pollutants and causing health issues include adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning products. Improperly vented kerosene heaters, gas space heaters, and gas stoves can also contribute to poor air quality and a sick building.

• Outdoor chemical contaminants. Outdoor pollutants, such as motor vehicle exhaust and emissions, can enter a building by way of air intake vents, windows, and other openings that have been placed in poor locations throughout the building; and pollutants from plumbing vents and bathroom and kitchen exhausts can also enter the building the same way.

• Biological contaminants. Bacteria, mold, pollen, and viruses are biological contaminants and can easily multiply in any water that has sitting stagnantly in ducts, humidifiers, drain pans, ceiling tiles, carpeting, and insulation. Biological contaminants can also include insect and avian excrement.

• Radon and Asbestos . Radon and asbestos are not associated with either sick building syndrome or building related illness because they can cause long-term diseases that occur years after the person has been exposed and not acute or immediate health problems (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2007a).

The Problem with Mold

Mold is the most common environmental problem for schools (Buchanan, 2007). There have been cases where mold has made it necessary for schools to close forever, districts to start the school year late, and high-school students being forced to take classes in middle school or be bused to other high schools. Mold has been the cause for at least a dozen schools to closing for days or weeks, and three schools have been forced to close permanently. Mold can be an expensive problem too. Instructors have filed lawsuits over illnesses that are associated with mold, such as asthma, shortness of breath, and loss of memory. Mold has cost districts millions of dollars to clean up the problem (Stricherz, 2001).

Since mold can grow practically anywhere there is moisture and oxygen, it is necessary to pay attention to ceiling tiles, carpeting, wood, drywall, and any porous surface. Many times the problem can be traced back to inferior construction materials, poor ventilation, and a lack of proper maintenance that allows leaks to go unattended or inappropriately repaired. For example, not replacing ceiling tiles that have become wet provides a breeding ground for molds that will then become airborne (Stricherz, 2001).

High Cost of Cleanup

Mold cleanup can be expensive, and its remediation can wreak havoc on the school and district as they try to deal with the problem. One school district had to delay the opening of the school year when mold was found on an elementary school's roof and in 20 classrooms. Instructors had been complaining of watery eyes, backaches, and bronchitis. Once the problem was discovered, then time was needed to figure out how to clean it up and what to do with the students. The students ended up being transferred to three other schools. The cleanup will cost...

(The entire section is 4000 words.)