Environmental Issue & Sick Building Syndrome Blog

National Healthy Schools Day

April 3rd, 2018 9:43 AM by Dan Howard


School Professionals and Surviving the School Building Mold Science Project 

                With the return of students to school, many school districts are fighting environmental and Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) challenges, particularly mold problems. When we experience any school environmental issue such as mold, it can be front page headlines, TV, talk show fodder and Facebook news feed material.

Environmental issues in schools are not “just another student health issue”. These problems are a public relations nightmare, a staff human relations mine field, a facility management challenge, a budget buster, a political fiasco and a liability time bomb. 

                  In a 30-minute time span, environmental hysteria can overtake an entire community. A mold story can “whip up” a sentiment long before it is possible to research and understand what may (or may not) be happening in a school environment.


It’s not just mold.  The environmental issues that can confront a school district and its administration include:

                Asthma Triggers


                Lead in drinking water

                Lead dust



                Communicable diseases



                Insects or insect treatment chemicals

                Carbon monoxide

                Toxins (bus and car fumes as one example) brought in through HVAC “fresh air” systems

 The sources for the exposures vary widely and unpredictably. Many of the problems started with compliance mandates that did not anticipate the environmental consequence. As an example, energy saving equipment and designs can create indoor air quality potential issues. Even asbestos started with well-intended fire protection mandates. The most common sources of environmental problems in schools include:

                HVAC design mistakes

                Moisture and leak problems

                Original material selection

                Material and equipment defects

                Mixtures of events and construction conditions

                Budget constraints limiting prudent maintenance 

                Problems created during renovations

                Mold exposures are a timely example of how this whole environmental freight train gets rolling. The reason we find many mold problems when students return to school at the end of summer makes sense when looking at the most common sources of mold contaminations:

  • Roof, wall foundation or other leaks from the exterior
  • Plumbing leaks
  • Malfunctioning or poorly designed HVAC Systems
  • Condensation issues relating to building envelope dew points
                               Just as we teach our students that the term paper is not going to magically appear the morning it is due, school districts need to have a plan and take action on the plan before the problem becomes the news of the day. Even financially stressed schools can make environmental improvements that are low cost and meaningful.  Many of these may actually save money in the long run.                     If you are like most people facing a new challenge, your first question is “where does this begin?” A great start is the EPA “Tools for Schools” program. It is recognized as an excellent program to put systems in place to avoid environmental issues and respond when they occur. This can be found at: https://www.epa.gov/iaq-schools/indoor-air-quality-tools-schools-action-kit  This kit establishes procedures and involves the entire facility team in ownership of a good environment. From administrator, to teacher to nurse and custodian, everyone needs to do their part for the best outcome possible.

                Even the very best school environmental plan is only a meaningless series of words until there is action and accountability. For action to happen there needs to be someone in charge with the authority to make things happen. 

The EPA Tools for Schools program can provide a good background for “in house” management if that is the best method for the school district’s circumstances. Hiring an outside consultant is another approach which does have its benefits. It can allow for outside review and add credibility to the image that a school is taking prudent measures to protect the health of students and employees. Outside consultants have the advantage of not being subjected to pressure from school district staff.

                To Do List for everyday facility environmental planning:


Establish a written system in place

Hire or assign a “person in charge”

Share the program and outline procedures for all staff

Create a communication system process for problem identification

Communicate needs such budgetary requirements to address potential problems

Correct the underlying causes that allowed contaminations to occur

Do not

Try to hide environmental problems

Paint over or disguise real issues  

Withhold information such as bad lab testing results 

To Do List for Environmental Events such as floods or discovered environmental risks such as mold, asbestos, contagions, pests:   


                Bring in qualified professionals immediately

                Assign a spokesperson to handle media and public inquiries

Take action to limit personal exposures

                Take all possible action to mitigate the damage to people or property  

                Communicate with staff and students about any health risks

                Communicate with the solicitor for the school      


Do not

                Damage good will by hiding the situation from the public

                Allow exposures to occur when a risk is first suspected  

                Risk personal safety by having issues cleaned before they are defined ‘

                Selecting the right staff member or outside professional is the key to success of every system put into action. The best plan in the wrong hands can be worse than no plan at all. The advantage of engaging a staff employee may be constant on-site monitoring and in some instances cost savings.  The potential advantages of an outside firm are access to specialists and an “on call” presence not influenced by the staff at the facilities. 

                Potential considerations in hiring an indoor air quality (IAQ) coordinator or team.

                                Training and credentials in the field

                                Experience and relationships in the related industries

                                Ability to evaluate conditions, write a plan and make and implement recommendations

                                Skill in testing for potential exposures or independent relationships in the field

                                A policy of not releasing suspected condition information unless the designated contact

                                An ability to deal with the media when authorized as the contact.  

                Building and executing a plan to maintain and healthy environment is school buildings is a win-win for all parties. From the asthmatic student who is avoiding chronic events, to the staff and tax payers, all can benefit from doing the best possible indoor air quality. 


Posted by Dan Howard on April 3rd, 2018 9:43 AM



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