News Brief

Lack of Fresh Air, Chemicals from Building Materials May Make Schoolchildren Sick

When ventilation rates were up to code, children missed fewer days of school in a two-year study, and illness patterns implicate our building products.

LBNL’s findings, which were published in the journal Indoor Air, also suggest that indoor pollutants may be at the heart of the elevated absences. Although other scientists have shown that respiratory infections spread more readily in classrooms lacking in fresh air, these findings suggest a more complex relationship between poor ventilation and illness. If there were a direct connection, researchers would expect to see at most a seven-day lag between inadequate ventilation rates and student absences.

But because of the relatively long 21-day lag between dips in ventilation rates and student absences, “we speculate that perhaps chronically poor ventilation exposes you to more of the chemicals and irritants inside classrooms, such as from building materials, furniture, equipment, and cleaning products,” lead researcher Mark Mendell said, “and maybe that chronic exposure makes you more susceptible to getting respiratory infections.”

California schools are losing $33 million a year in state attendance-based funding because of poor ventilation, the researchers estimate, while families are paying an extra $80 million a year in added childcare costs.


Published June 27, 2013

Melton, P. (2013, June 27). Lack of Fresh Air, Chemicals from Building Materials May Make Schoolchildren Sick. Retrieved from

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July 19, 2013 - 5:37 pm

Bill, you make very good points here, but I don't know if the researchers would have the answer to your question. They were using remote sensors to detect CO2 levels in the classrooms as a proxy for inadequate ventilation. It does seem to me that an obvious follow-up step would be to intervene with the schools that were consistently below the standard.

July 15, 2013 - 10:05 pm

The question I have is whether staff at the schools studied were aware that the ventilation rates were below the standard. Were there building operators at these schools? Why was the ventilation rate below the standard, particularly in the Central Valley where the schools were air conditioned. In the naturally ventilated schools the issue could well be one of architectural design, but in the air conditioned schools was the issue one of controls & operation? If there are no operators, the operators are not aware of the ventilation rates in the classrooms or are not properly trained, or if controls don’t operate properly, how can you know with certainty that ventilation rates can be increased above the state standard?

I’m trying to understand how to act upon your findings, but it seems more information on the level of awareness of staff about current operation is needed before options can be considered. The implication of the study is that higher ventilation rates will reduce student and staff illness. But how can you assure the ventilation rates are increased and stay there?

Obviously source reduction is a big issue here, but I'm setting that aside for now. Of course, as a designer, if you have no way to know that ventilation rates will be maintained at an adequate level, employing source reduction when selecting building materials becomes that much more critical!