Today our UT team is going back to high school.

Schools have a unique place in the fabric of America. Yet there is growing evidence that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) leads to increases in student illnesses and absenteeism, decreases in academic performance, and increased upper-respiratory problems in teachers. Past studies of IAQ in schools have been deficient in many ways. Only four of 735 published papers that we have reviewed involve actual measurements in high schools in North America. There has been little progress in determining the actual agents responsible for adverse effects when ventilation is inadequate. Environmental agents responsible for dampness-related health effects have not been determined. Few studies have focused on irritating oxygenated VOCs (OVOCs) and their sources. Schools in hot and humid climates have been under-represented. And the focus to date has been on identifying IAQ problems in schools. Proven low-cost solutions are needed.

That’s why I am so excited. Today our UT team is going back to high school. We begin today what will be an intense two-year field campaign as part of a four-year study to characterize indoor environmental quality (indoor air quality + lighting + noise) in high schools in Texas. The title of our effort is Healthy High School PRIDE (Partnership in Research on InDoor Environments). This project is funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) through their Healthy Schools: Environmental Factors, Children’s Health and Performance, and Sustainable Building Practices (FON: EPA-G2013-STAR-H1) initiative. The USEPA deserves significant kudos for taking the lead on this very important initiative that involves projects being undertaken by seven different universities.

The overall goal of our project is to address major research gaps by conducting an intensive field campaign to delineate the relationship between environmental factors and student and teacher health and perceptions, and then investigating the efficacy of low-cost solutions to help schools become healthier. Specific objectives include: (1) identify systematic problems in school HVAC systems that cause poor ventilation rates, increased pollutant concentrations and adverse health symptoms for school occupants and explore low-cost solutions to these problems,  (2) utilize molecular techniques to investigate relationships between composition and diversity of the microbial community present in school classrooms, environmental conditions, and health symptoms, (3) delineate the role of OVOCs on student and teacher health outcomes, and (4) engage high school student and teacher stewards in the design, data collection and outreach components of the project.

The UT project involves three progressive school districts with whom we have partnered, with the ultimate goal of finding low cost ways of making their schools healthier or to avoid high costs down-the-road due to building-related problems that can be identified and nipped in the bud now. Our hope is that by leveraging findings from our partnering schools, others across the United States will also benefit.

During our field campaign we do intensive walk-throughs of every high school, from exterior grounds (looking for local sources of pollution, etc.) to inspections of the occupied interior space, and assessment of HVAC systems and, where possible, interstitial spaces. These inspections inform our field sampling design for each high school, within which we will collect a range of indoor environmental samples in four to five locations every semester. In addition to indoor samples, we will collect samples from HVAC systems (filter cakes), and outdoors for specific air quality parameters.

Sampling at each location will be completed for four consecutive days and will include measurements of comfort parameters such as temperature and relative humidity, carbon dioxide, air exchange rates, HVAC cycling, noise, illuminance, size-fractionated PM2.5, bioaerosols, surface microbes, microbes on HVAC filter cakes, formaldehyde, terpenes, terpene alcohols, other VOCs (particularly polar/oxygenated VOCs) and ozone. To the extent possible we are also identifying other important metadata, including major sources of indoor and outdoor pollutants at each school, the nature of cleaning products and practices, HVAC system operation and filter types, number of health-related absences before, during, and after cold and flu season, and more. Teachers and students are also providing anonymous and voluntary health and perception data via surveys.

Our team will spend summers analyzing mountains of data and testing several key hypotheses, but also working with our school partners to access unoccupied classrooms and other school spaces to evaluate low-cost solutions to improve indoor environmental quality. Examples might include removal of specific sources, low-cost measures for improved pressure balancing to reduce pollutant entry through interstitial spaces, and testing of improved filter technologies.

A central part of our effort is to excite 9th and 10th graders about STEM fields, in our case building science, e.g., architectural engineering, microbiology, and chemistry. As such, our collective high school partners have identified over 50 bright young minds who will serve as our student stewards. Our team is completing detailed workshops with every school to describe the importance of indoor environmental quality, and to complete demonstrations regarding sources and measurements of indoor pollutants. At the workshop teams of student stewards are asked to think of a location in their school where they think a swab sample to evaluate microbial communities would be interesting, and they get to collect the sample and later learn what they found. Our stewards are also alerted in advance to our work in their schools and are invited to shadow and learn from our efforts, including analysis of data after sampling events. And, each group of school stewards get to compete against other school stewards in an indoor air quality challenge during the summer. In the summer 2016 stewards will be challenged to design a portable air purifier to remove a specific list of pollutants from air. Our team will provide initial guidance and materials. The steward teams will then come to our laboratories at the University of Texas at Austin to test their air purifiers in large chamber facilities that are challenged by the pollutants of interest. I cannot wait to see what ingenious air purification systems our stewards will design. To top all of this off, the student stewards will have an opportunity to formally present their findings at a session at a major conference before they graduate from high school!

There will be many more posts related to this project over the next three years. Stay tuned!



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