Not Quite Breathing Easy: Recognizing the Occupational Risks of Poor Indoor Air Quality

July 26, 2007

by Claris Olson, HSC Environmental Health Specialist

Many teachers will breathe a sigh of relief when they hear a Montgomery County Md. jury determined that a teacher who became ill from exposure to toxic mold in a portable classroom is entitled to worker’s compensation, as reported in this Washington Post article.

Classifying this teachers’ illness as an “occupational disease” is a major step forward in acknowledging the serious danger of poor indoor air quality in schools.

For years, teachers have been reporting health problems and their concerns with the indoor air quality in their schools, both in portable classrooms and traditional school buildings. 

For the most part, school administrators and those in the medical profession have not recognized the seriousness of the problems that indoor air quality causes for teachers. Teachers suffering from medical problems resulting from poor indoor air have been accused of fabricating their stories and some have even been referred for psychological evaluation. 

In reality, the conditions in many classrooms pose significant hazards to teachers as well as to children.

Portable classrooms are notorious not only for their poor ventilation – which can cause toxic mold growth, as in the Montgomery County case – but also for construction materials that contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  They also have inefficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that are so noisy that many teachers choose not to use them, reducing the ventilation even further. 

But like it or not, many school districts rely on portable classrooms or on old buildings with conditions that could lead to dangerously poor indoor air quality.  The California Collaborative for High Performing Schools provides specifications for modular or relocatable classrooms [pdf] that can help safeguard air quality in these situations.  (Keep in mind that these specifications were designed for the California climate so may not be appropriate for other parts of the country.)

The EPA also provides information to help with the indoor environment of portable classrooms.

Although it’s great to hear that a jury recognized the seriousness of this issue and is taking steps toward compensating the teacher who has suffered, I hope that soon we’ll be hearing more about steps that schools are taking to improve indoor air quality and prevent teachers from experiencing this type of occupational illness in the first place.

To learn more about indoor air quality and school environments, check out our action and resource guide