Solid Science Practical Solutions


Dealing with IAQ Complaints in Schools

IAQ Complaints Will Happen!

Indoor Air Quality 2011

As every Buildings & Grounds Manager knows, complaints about indoor air quality (IAQ) are inevitable.  In just the last month, Garden State Environmental (GSE) has responded to four IAQ complaints at NJ schools.  In those cases, the Managers responded quickly and properly and found that with the right technical support from GSE, they were able to prevent relatively small issues from becoming major problems.
IAQ issues are a year-round concern, and the winter season has its own unique set of issues.  Heating systems are running and rooms may be too hot or too cold, windows are closed leading to inadequate ventilation and the indoor air is commonly very dry, especially in buildings heated by forced hot air.  Low relative humidity is one of the most common and uncomfortable indoor conditions encountered in IAQ investigations during cold winter months.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has established a recommended range for relative humidity of 30-60%.  The ideal comfortable relative humidity range has been reported as 40% to 60%, as long as building materials or contents are not adversely affected.  NJ-PEOSH IAQ Regulation (N.J.A.C. 12:100-13-1) does not specifically address relative humidity in its standard for NJ public buildings, including schools, but does have standards for temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) in occupied public buildings. 
Low relative humidity can result in eye irritation and complaints of nose and throat discomfort. In addition, irritated mucous membranes can result in chronic coughing and can predispose susceptible individuals to the affects of certain chemical and microbiological air contaminants.  High humidity levels (over 60%) can promote the growth of microorganisms on building surfaces and furnishings, and cause or contribute to microbial IAQ problems.
GSE recommends a range of indoor relative humidity from 30% to 55% year round for maximum occupant comfort and healthy IAQ. 
In some cases, this may require the installation of humidification in the cold dry winter months. 
Research indicates that poor indoor school environments have adverse effects on "the health and the academic performance of ...US schoolchildren".  Less than ideal conditions lead to a variety of health problems that potentially affect comfort, concentration and performance of your students and staff.  As an example, elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) has been directly linked to occupant discomfort and reduced alertness and performance.  This condition is typically associated with insufficient ventilation and is an important factor in "sick building syndrome" or "building related disease" complaints.  Measurement of CO2 can also act as a useful marker for the risk of exposure to other IAQ contaminants.
Every school in New Jersey must have an IAQ management program in accordance with the NJ-PEOSH IAQ regulation.  While many districts have generic IAQ Plans based on the NJ Model Plan, GSE often finds that the necessary District-specific information is not included, the Plan is not updated regularly as mandated, and IAQ events are not regularly and properly documented.  These common deficiencies increase the risk of citations during a NJ-PEOSH audit or complaint investigation.
A few ideas to help maintain good IAQ:
  • Have the HVAC systems regularly serviced and cleaned.  Quarterly filter changes are recommended and remember to change filters after any dusty renovation work.
  • Make sure the right balance of fresh air is introduced.  Intake air settings need to change by season.
  • Monitor temperature, relative humidity and CO2 regularly.
  • Respond quickly to signs of moisture infiltration that might lead to microbial growth.
  • Call an IAQ expert (like GSE) for complex cases where the source and solution is not evident or health effects are reported or suspected.
Maintaining a robust IAQ program will reduce the risk of complaints and provide a safe and healthy learning environment for both children and staff.  If you have any questions about your existing IAQ program or would like expert assistance on any IAQ related issues, please contact GSE at 201-652-1119 or Visit our website.