Air Testing in Schools, Office Buildings

indoor air testing office classroom

Air testing in schools and office buildings is required to verify indoor air quality and troubleshoot ventilation problems.

Air quality and the law

Indoor air quality is regulated in public schools, classrooms and office buildings by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA is responsible for developing and enforcing workplace safety and health regulation law. NIOSH was established to help assure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by providing research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health.

In general, OSHA regulations are based on public health and safety information and studies developed by NIOSH.

There are 3 levels of OSHA compliance at the state level in the US from most to least regulated.

  • OSHA-approved State Plans that cover private, state and local government workplaces
  • OSHA-approved State Plan that covers state and local government workers only.
  • OSHA coverage at the federal level for private workers but not state or local workplaces

You can see your state’s level of OSHA coverage here.

Note that school buildings and classrooms may be more heavily regulated than office buildings. Managing IAQ in schools involves school boards, local public funds and child safety issues. In addition, children in classrooms are closer together. Most schools have approximately four times as many occupants as an office building in the same amount of floor space. As schools add classrooms, they may have different heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment in different rooms, portable classrooms or buildings.

Indoor air pollutants

Indoor pollutants generally fall into one of three groups: biological and chemical pollutants, particulate matter and poor air.

Biological and chemical pollutants like mold, bacteria and dust mites, water-based lead as well as volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde, solvents and cleaning agents.

Particulate matter like dust, dander, pollen, asbestos, lead dust, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides or any fine particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller. In general, any inhalable particulate matter 10 microns or smaller can have a long-term impact on health.

Lack of fresh air. Poor air can be the result of high levels of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or radon in the air.

The Environmental Protection agency has a great reference guide that describes each of these in more detail.

Indoor air related illnesses

Poor indoor air quality has been linked to short-term conditions like increased colds or respiratory infections from airborne bacteria. Allergies may be triggered by mold, pet dander, or exposure to VOCs. Tuberculosis, measles, staphylococcus infections, legionella and influenza are known to be transmitted by air.

In addition to short-term exposure to airborne contaminants, long-term exposure to lead (either through paint dust or water), asbestos or second-hand tobacco smoke can pose a variety of serious health effects including lung disease, asthma, bronchitis, decreased lung function or other respiratory problems

IAQ schools

Exposure to lead can be especially problematic. It can cause serious damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system, and red blood cells. Children are particularly vulnerable. Lead exposure in children can result in delays in physical development, lower IQ levels, shorter attention spans, and an increase in behavioral problems.

High levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have been found to positively correlate with increased student sickness and absenteeism. In addition, studies have shown that high levels of carbon dioxide in enclosed areas reduce the amount of oxygen to the brain, resulting in drowsiness and poor student performance.

Sick Building Syndrome

Sick building Syndrome is used to describe buildings where people seem to always be sick for no apparent reason. Symptoms are positively correlated with the time spent indoors. Occupants tend to get sick the longer they are in a building, whereas their symptoms improve or disappear when they leave.

Poor indoor air quality in schools or office buildings may often mask itself as a cold or the flu. Runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, headache, fatigue, fever, chills or nausea can all be signs of problems with IAQ.

Air Testing & investigation

In order to test the quality of air in classrooms or office buildings, a professional air quality testing company should be used. Air testing typically covers sampling for, or detecting:

  • Mold & bacteria
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • Allergens
  • Asbestos
  • Radon
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Carbon dioxide

In addition, older buildings should have their air tested for asbestos or lead if lead-based paint has been used in the past.

While a professional home air quality test costs less than $500 dollars, outside commercial air testing for large buildings can run into the thousands of dollars.

For some school or office buildings if may be more cost effective to conduct indoor air testing with maintenance staff. The EPA provides an on-line guide for HVAC personnel to develop an IAQ profile or to investigate an IAQ complaint.

Short term IAQ solutions

In most cases, indoor air quality can be improved by simply opening a window or a door. When this is not possible, the next best solution is to clean and dust everything. Make sure no wall hangings or furniture obstruct fresh air vents. If you still have concerns about IAQ, ask your building’s HVAC staff to conduct air testing in your area.

Here are some other low-cost or short term solutions from the EPA:

  • Do not block air vents or grilles.
  • Comply with the office and building smoking policy.
  • Water and maintain office plants properly.
  • Dispose of garbage promptly and properly.
  • Store food properly.
  • Avoid bringing products into the building that could release harmful or bothersome odors or contaminants.

Notify your building or facility manager immediately if you suspect an indoor air quality problem.

Because of the cost, some building operators will avoid air testing. If a teacher or an office worker believes they have poor indoor air, one solution is to use a CO2 monitor instead. Indoor CO2 concentrations can, under some test conditions, provide a good indication of the adequacy of ventilation. As CO2 levels rise, the quantity of volatile organic compounds, odors and micro-organisms in the air rise too. For example, a carbon dioxide monitor like the SAN-11 can be used to log CO2 levels throughout the day to verify the airflow in a classroom or office building.

Free air testing resources

For office workers, the EPA has an online publication titled “Office Building Occupants Guide to Indoor Air Quality.” For teachers, the United States Environmental Protection Agency publishes the “Teacher’s Classroom Checklist from Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools” as part of their IAQ in Schools web page.


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