IAQ Action for School Administrators

IAQ Action for School Administrators: Awareness and suggestions to improve health and performance by improving school indoor environments.

This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list. There are other, and sometimes unexpected, incidents and conditions that are not covered here. A raised general awareness from the list below should help administrators foster a healthful school environment for all. All of the recommendations in this guide will benefit the school environment (indoor and outdoor air quality). Any product or action taken to protect individuals with environmental sensitivities will generally be safer for all staff and students, particularly those with asthma, allergies and any other respiratory illnesses.

  1. Reduce contamination from outdoor air by implementing a no-idle vehicle-zone around the school.
  2. Implement Health Canada’s Tools for Schools IAQ Action Kit using CASLE’s streamlined checklists. www.casle.ca
  3. If the school has no mechanical ventilation system, manually refresh air by opening windows (at least 2 per classroom) mid-morning and mid-afternoon as weather permits (caution during pollen season).
  4. Leave the air delivery system on after school hours, particularly when cleaning or other activities are taking place. If the system is turned off or air circulation rates are reduced during the night or on weekends, ensure that it is turned on for at least an hour before the students enter. Older ventilation systems may underperform. Open windows (at least 2 per classroom) mid-morning and mid-afternoon as weather permits (caution during pollen season).
  5. Establish a voluntary “Scent-Smart” program based on education sessions for students, staff, and parents. Many companies are now producing fragrance-free and less toxic products. See the EHANS’s Guide to Less Toxic Products at www.lesstoxicguide.ca.
  6. Use less toxic school supplies. Use water based no-scent, low-VOC markers and white-board wipe, white glue, non-toxic paints, unscented facial tissues, etc. (See Resources)
  7. Use white-out tape dispensers, not liquid.
  8. Use dust free chalk, and damp-clean or HEPA vacuum boards and ledges frequently. Encourage use of flipcharts or wall projection to reduce chalk use.
  9. Use a microfiber cloth and water for routine tasks, such as wiping boards. Wipe whiteboards clean with a microfiber cloth and water (do not use fragranced solvent product).
  10. For whiteboards, purchase least toxic, fragrance-free dry-erase markers.
  11. Replace chalk with a low-powder chalk and use damp chalk erasers or a microfiber cloth to clean blackboards.
  12. Musical instruments can be disinfected by using a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution on a microfiber cloth and wiping the instrument for 10 seconds. Hydrogen peroxide is generally tolerated by most people. (Some disinfection products contain accelerated hydrogen peroxide, which may not be tolerated by all people with environmental sensitivities.)
  13. Ensure photocopy, laser printers, and laminating equipment are in rooms with dedicated ventilation.
  14. Air photocopies and laminated materials 24 hours before distribution. (Cold process laminators are better)
  15. Do not use chemical room deodorizers or sprays anywhere in the school, including in washrooms. They contain toxic chemicals, including neurotoxins. Freshen air by removing or diluting the offending odor by cleaning, ventilation or absorption (not by covering it with another chemical).
  16. Conduct routine hall locker clean-outs at least every three months.
  17. Encourage students to take home used gym clothing for frequent washing. Wash locker rooms and equipment rooms often and well.
  18. Wipe change rooms down with baking soda in water or trisodium phosphate (TSP) (if tolerated) to clean, reduce mould and remove odours.
  19. Go through the drawers, cupboards and storage closets in the classrooms and remove any products that are not fragrance-free and not non-toxic.
  20. Reduce classroom clutter, and dust classrooms frequently with a self-attractant cloth or HEPA vacuum. Clutter creates havens for dust (a common allergen) and germs.
  21. Avoid compost bins in the classrooms.
  22. Avoid eating or storing food in classrooms. (food poisoning, mould growth, and pest attraction)
  23. Remove any toxic, scented products from the art room and storage closet. See Less Toxic Guide and www.casle.ca for art supplies information (see Resources).
  24. Avoid having fur-bearing or feathered pets stay overnight in school. Other kinds of pets, or pet visits, may work better.
  25. Avoid indoor plants. Their stems and soil often have moulds. So-called “air-purifying” plants do so at extremely low levels so are of questionable value. Science rooms may need ventilated plant growing rooms.
  26. For sitting rugs use washable cotton throw rugs or folded and sewn towel “sit-upons”, not carpet pieces.
  27. Be sure photocopy equipment, art rooms, furnace rooms, janitor’s closets, storage rooms, technical rooms, washrooms, change rooms and gym equipment rooms are well ventilated.
  28. Discourage use of plastic water bottles. They contain hazardous chemicals including endocrine disruptors, including Bisphenol-A and Phthalates.
  29. Reduce use of PVC plastic equipment, classroom materials, and building materials, including vinyl gym floor covers.
  30. Consider adding floor model air filters to classrooms which have students and teachers with respiratory or environmental health problems.
  31. Do not wax or strip floors during school hours. Use least-toxic products and methods.
  32. Be sure custodians know to put water in P-traps of unused showers and sinks to prevent sewer gas backup.
  33. Have maintenance staff fix water leaks, seepage or condensation problems immediately. Moulds that emit harmful airborne chemicals can grow within 24 hours. Repair all leaks well. Remove all nonwashable affected materials like plaster, fabric, carpets, and ceiling tiles. Wash remaining areas with hydrogen peroxide or Borax solution. Use chlorine only if necessary, and with care to avoid inhalation of fumes. Dry areas quickly and well to prevent mould recolonization. Increase ventilation if possible. If applicable, clean air delivery system. Get professional advice. Canadian Construction Association mould guidelines: www.cca-acc.com/mould/index.html If you see mould or smell mould, you have mould, but sensitive people can be affected by hidden mould growth such as growth within walls.
  34. Do not conduct renovations or repairs (such as roof tarring, sanding, painting, removing and laying of floor tiles, gyproc, floor refinishing…) while school is in use. Use strict isolation procedures or do work during vacation times to prevent any exposure of students or staff to building materials. For more extensive renovations, and for gym floor resurfacing, schedule at the beginning of the summer break to allow two months for off-gassing. Always use least toxic materials and methods.
  35. Allow ample time for off-gassing new building materials before removing the isolation barriers and resuming use of the renovated area. (See Healthy School Design and Construction, Appendix, for guidelines at www.casle.ca)
  36. Provide notice in advance of all planned renovations and maintenance projects.
  37. Phase out/Remove all carpeting. Replace with hard surface flooring such as hard, not soft, tiles and lesstoxic glue. If your school has carpet, purchase a HEPA vacuum cleaner, and vacuum the carpet(s) frequently. (see Resources). Do not use a regular vacuum on carpets as they release dust (from the carpet) into the air.
  38. Portable classrooms commonly have mould growth, ventilation problems and toxic chemicals gassing off from inferior building materials. (In NS many such problems are being prevented by superior construction of portable classrooms.)
  39. Have maintenance department check drinking water for possible water contaminants such as biological contaminants, arsenic, lead, plastics, or other hazardous materials. Test and monitor school wells.
  40. Ensure pressure-treated wood is not used for play equipment. Options: steel, plastic, stone, brick, concrete, naturally resistant woods such as larch, redwood, cedar, Douglas fir, and alternative designs.
  41. Be sure science and chemistry labs have been properly cleared of unnecessary or outdated chemicals, that only necessary chemicals are on hand, that they are properly stored and handled, that hoods/ ventilation/safety equipment are working properly, and that First Aid kits are appropriate and up to date.
  42. Be sure that custodial closets, mechanical rooms and electrical rooms are not used for storage.
  43. When unexpected indoor air quality hazards occur, be prepared to protect students and staff without delay. In large or serious cases this may or may not include vacating the area or the building. (Examples: roof tarring fumes, pesticides, painting fumes or gymnasium floor refinishing fumes.)
  44. Implement changes to cleaning schedules to avoid cleaning when the staff and students are in the school. If cleaning must take place during school hours, for example, when cleaning up a spill, use least toxic products and methods.
  45. Schedule “heavy” maintenance/cleaning (e.g. floor waxing and stripping), during holiday periods to allow one to two weeks for off-gassing.
  46. Use a microfiber/self-attractant mop for dry surface cleaning of floors; use a HEPA vacuum; or use a mop dampened with water and a mild non-toxic cleaning material.
  47. Provide fragrance-free mild soap detergents for general hand washing and dishwashing. See Less Toxic Guide (see Resources).
  48. Provide fragrance-free, least toxic soap in washrooms because hand soaps come in direct contact with users. See Less Toxic Guide (see Resources).

Choosing Least-toxic cleaning materials: 

  • Small doses can affect functions of the body. This is applicable for all children, who are more vulnerable to environmental contaminants than adults, and in particular, to children and adults with environmental sensitivities, asthma or respiratory illnesses. 
  • Individuals with allergies, asthma and other respiratory illnesses; some skin conditions; sufferers of headaches or migraines; and those with environmental sensitivities (ES) may all experience difficulties from cleaning product ingredients, including active and inactive ingredients, dyes and added fragrances, natural or otherwise. 
  • Special care needs to be taken in choosing products that can come in direct contact with people. For example, volatile ingredients can enter the halls from custodial rooms containing concentrated cleaning products, from atomized or sprayed products, and from products applied to the skin, such as hand soap. 
  • In general, choose products that do not have hazard symbols on the label, are fragrancefree, contain no dyes, preservatives, solvents, phosphates, caustics or chlorines. Choose products that do not off-gas volatile organic chemicals (no VOC). In addition products should not contain known carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, or endocrine disruptors.
  • Avoid disinfectants and hand sanitizers containing Triclosan. Choose scent-free hand sanitizers that are the least toxic possible, and supervise their use to minimize exposures from overuse. 
  • Most disinfectants (i.e. for washrooms and water fountains) are toxic by design. Choose scent free and least toxic products, such as hydrogen peroxide, when possible. Disinfect after hours when possible. 
  • “Green” products are not always the same as “healthy”.
    • Ingredients that are fine for the natural environment may still be harmful to humans. For example, d-limonene, from citrus, is a strong solvent and also combines with natural ozone to create formaldehyde. D-limonene is a very common allergen and also usually triggers symptoms in individuals with ES.
    • “Green” products often have added “natural“ scents, usually to mask the odours of the active ingredients, and these scents may cause symptoms in people with allergies to these substances and also to ES individuals (e.g. mint, pinene, eucalyptus, and others are common allergens).
    • Product claims can be misleading. For example, “non-toxic”, “hypo-allergenic”, “green”, “natural”, “earthwise”, “eco-friendly” … and many other such words and phrases have no legal meaning. See The Seven Sins of Greenwashing (see Resources). 
  • Caution is warranted when using WHMIS program’s Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to choose products. Some ingredients may not be listed. For example, some list only “active” ingredients. MSDS are not required to list ingredients that make up less than 1% of the product, and carcinogens below 0.1% can be exempt. 
  • See www.lesstoxicguide.ca and the Healthy Indoors Partnership Buyers Guides (see Resources). 
  • “Unscented” or “scent-free” labels can be misleading. Industry Canada says there is no firm rule on “unscented” products. In general there must be only enough masking scent to mask other odours from the product’s ingredients. On average, unscented products contain 0.6% added fragrance, while scented products contain on average 1.5% fragrance. “Fragrance-free” on a label tends to be more accurate.

For Cleaning, In general:

  • Use as few cleaning products as possible and the least toxic product for each job. For example, a good all-purpose cleaner may be able to clean floors, walls, desks and glass. 
  • Use microfiber cloths and mops dampened with water (preferred), mild vinegar and water solution or least toxic (tolerated) cleaning materials for cleaning, particularly if cleaning is necessary during school hours (e.g. wiping whiteboard, wiping spills, etc.). Using microfiber cloths can reduce or even eliminate the need for many cleaning products. 
  • Custodial closet doors need to be kept closed to help prevent concentrated product odours from escaping into the halls. 
  • Squirt, don’t atomize. Squirt cleaning products directly into the cleaning cloth and not into the air toward a surface. This minimizes the presence of respirable droplets. 
  • Avoid use of aerosol propellants. 
  • HEPA vacuum and damp-mop or use self-attractant mops instead of sweeping. 
  • Take care that staff do not bring potentially harmful cleaning products from home.