Area schools participating in indoor air quality study

Contact: Rene Abadie
Date: May 21, 2013 Indoor air quality check


AIR CHECK – Hammond High Magnet School students Brett Sylve, left, and Brant Balado evaluate the indoor air quality in their classroom while Southeastern occupational and environmental health specialist Ephraim Massawe and science teacher Zaklina "Jackie" Hutchinson observe. The EPA-funded program is intended to detect factors impacting indoor air quality in Tangipahoa Parish schools.



     HAMMOND – When Hammond High Magnet School science teacher Zaklina "Jackie" Hutchinson heard about an indoor air quality (IAQ) improvement program being conducted in area schools, she was eager to see if this could be something she could include in her teaching strategies.
     She quickly volunteered to serve as the IAQ coordinator for her school and neighboring Hammond Eastside School.
     "I'm always looking for ways to enrich my students' learning process, so when I heard about this, I wanted in," said the biology and chemistry teacher. "Besides, I was curious to find out about the air quality of our school. After all, this is where we – the teachers and students – spend most of our time every single day."
     Hutchinson serves as IAQ coordinator for her school and nearby Hammond Eastside Elementary School and was tasked with working with Southeastern Louisiana University occupational and environmental health specialist Ephraim Massawe to implement an IAQ program at the two schools. The effort is part of a $38,000 grant awarded to Massawe from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop and implement IAQ improvement programs based on the agency's "Tools for Schools" program.
     "Our intent is to train school IAQ coordinators who can identify, evaluate and document the current air quality in schools and then implement various cost-effective measures to improve and sustain good indoor air quality in the schools, our homes and other micro-environments," Massawe said. "Good indoor air quality has been shown to improve the learning processes in children."
     Massawe, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Industrial Technology, said poor indoor air quality is a serious public health hazard.
     "People spend more than 90 percent of their time in indoor environments," he explained. "Indoor air pollutants may be two to five times higher than outdoor air levels."
     Louisiana has a relatively high rate of respiratory illnesses, which can be worsened by poor indoor air quality, he added. State health statistics support that observation, showing that about 200,000 people in Louisiana suffer from asthma, a chronic lung condition characterized by episodes of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. The American Lung Association of Louisiana estimates there are more than 2,900 cases of pediatric asthma and nearly 7,000 cases among adults living in Tangipahoa Parish.
     "In addition to costing residents money in terms of hospital and doctor visits, these respiratory illnesses can also led to tardiness, absenteeism and lower academic productivity in our schools – not only to students, but also to staff and faculty," he said.
     After securing support for the Tangipahoa Parish School System, Massawe and his undergraduate assistant Laura Vasut began working with individual schools to identify IAQ coordinators. They then initiated a program that to identifying sources of poor indoor air quality and evaluating them through measurements, walkthrough audits, and interviewing parents and teachers. The IAQ coordinators meet as a group on Saturdays to discuss, compare and interpret results and to develop action plans.
     Coordinators were trained to use the EPA Tools for Schools program and were provided with equipment to conduct measurements. Walkthrough audits helped identify sources of poor indoor air quality, such as nearby idling school buses, smoking, construction and demolition, mold, paint, pesticides, inefficient ventilation, and cleaning products.
     "Some data indicated high contaminants during drop-off and pick-up times because emissions from idling buses contain high amounts of particulates and carbon dioxide, as well as other combustible by-products," Massawe said.
     Vasut, who presented a poster on the progress of the project at the recent University of Louisiana System Academic Summit at the University of Louisiana in Monroe, said walk-through audits of 11 schools in the parish have been completed. And, while no major problems were detected, minor, inexpensive issues were identified, including mildew and mold growth in damp areas, higher than optimal temperature and humidity levels, and the need for better air filter maintenance and replacement.
     "These are all problems that can be resolved at minimal costs to the schools, while providing a much healthier environment for student achievement and learning," Massawe said. "They are the 'low-hanging fruit' options that we recommend for implementation right away because they do not require feasibility studies or detailed financial analysis and resources."
     When Hutchinson met with Massawe and Vasut, the science teacher recognized the valuable teaching opportunity the exercise represented.
     "I realized this could be incorporated into a real learning experience for my students," she said. "We did baseline data collection with the equipment provided by Southeastern, both here and at Hammond Eastside. We found the carbon dioxide levels were within the recommended  ranges, and temperature and humidity levels were fairly stable. We found nothing disturbing, such as mold, and the air filters were all clean."
     Hutchinson took the learning experience a step further.
     "My students were scheduled to take a quiz on statistical analysis, and I thought to myself, 'why not give them real air quality data from the two schools I coordinated to analyze and process?' The students not only analyzed the data, they plotted it in Excel to identify relationships between variables and possible sources of pollution, or environmental triggers of asthma. They also conducted research and created a presentation on safe air quality control limits and suggested remedies aimed at improving the quality of air in the schools."
     Massawe said Hutchinson took a strong program and added significant value by involving her students in collecting and analyzing the IAQ data.
     "When I visited the classroom, students were very actively involved and engaged," Massawe noted. "I was very impressed with her approach and teaching philosophy. This is a very innovative way of implementing the IAQ program. While we continue to find ways to improve the air quality our kids are breathing, we also involve them and give them a real hands-on experience in processing and interpreting the data. I hope other IAQ coordinators can emulate this teaching strategy."
     "It has been a wonderful experience," Hutchinson said. "More schools should partner with this program as a way of improving the air quality in the schools.  Having indoor air quality coordinators also can sustain this program well after the project is concluded."
     For more information on the program, contact Massawe at 985-549-2243.


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