If you thought air pollution was the only thing to worry about in Beijing, think again. Indoor pollutants, it turns out, may also be having an effect on your health.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies from the US found that the levels of indoor pollutants may be up to 100 times higher than outdoor levels depending on the design and age of the building, location (urban or rural), outdoor AQI, and building materials used. These studies are used as a baseline by environmentalists worldwide, as the EPA sets out healthy limits for commercial and private spaces. Other studies have ranked indoor air pollution among the top four public environmental health risks.
This is of special concern to families living in Beijing, where the high AQI often confines students indoors. Children spend an average of seven hours at school, making indoor air quality (IAQ) a priority. Poor IAQ contributes to a higher likelihood of developing asthma and negatively affects productivity and attendance. The EPA sets out a six-point plan for managing IAQ levels: assess, plan, act, organize, communicate, and evaluate, which we’ve used to organize the article.
To see what schools are doing to ensure a healthy environment for students, we spoke to Andy Puttock and Travis Washko of the British School of Beijing, Shunyi (BSB) and Gabriele Solarik of the International Montessori School of Beijing (MSB). For expert advice, we interviewed PureLiving Beijing’s Aaron Feng.
• Identify and prevent risks
• Walk the grounds
• Determine a baseline
• Listen to occupants
“We want to be able to tell parents that the safest place for a child is in the school,” says Principal Andy Puttock of BSB Shunyi. Having led the school since the summer of 2013, Puttock visited others schools to find out what strategies were in place, from sports domes to the monitoring of indoor air pollution.
Prior to his arrival, BSB’s initial response was to purchase standalone air purifiers that sit on the floor – a largely reactive move. To identify major pollutants in various sections of the campus, BSB contracted PureLiving as well as two other companies from Shanghai and Tianjin to conduct independent tests.
PureLiving specializes in indoor air quality solutions, and provides testing for air and water quality, mold, and lead in businesses and residences. They also are involved in monitoring and maintenance, collecting data for their own and clients’ future reference.
Beijing office General Manager Aaron Feng says that the relationship they have with clients is like that of doctor and patient, where the patient comes to them and the first step is listening to their concerns, then performing a site visit. During the latter, a floor plan is drawn up for a closer look at the infrastructure. Then, a team of experts tests for various pollutants such as PM2.5, carbon dioxide, mold, formaldehyde, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene. The data is sent to a lab and the results are reported to the client in a report, with a breakdown of the major areas of concerns and recommendations for a plan of action.
MSB has had its indoor air quality tested in the past by Healthpro, but is looking to have an independent third party verify its newly-installed air filtration system once it’s been optimized. Administration and Communications Development Manager Gabriele Solarik has a background in environmental engineering and is currently working with outside experts to identify potential risks.
• Prioritize actions
• Put goals in writing
• Start small
• Work in stages
If the report finds unhealthy levels of indoor pollutants, there will be several rounds of consultations and discussions between the school management, parents, health care professionals, faculty, and government representatives if necessary. It will also affect the school’s short- and long-term planning, as the various recommendations are subject to funding and, if major construction is required, approvals from various governing bodies for permissions such as building permits.
• Address the source of the problems
• Educate staff about IAQ
After receiving the independent reports, BSB decided to remove carpets from several large rooms as they were found to be a source of mold and dust. The school also built a RMB 10 million sports dome to be used on high AQI days to ensure that children still had a space to play for PE classes and recess.
The summer of 2014 was a busy period for both BSB and MSB, as each school installed ceiling-mounted air filtration systems. Feng says that stand-alone air purifiers work best in smaller spaces such as classrooms, but hallways and bigger rooms such as libraries would require more units to keep PM2.5 levels lower than 25 micrograms per cubic meter – the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended level for asthmatics.
A ceiling-mounted air filtration system addresses the issue of ventilation when the windows are closed, which can otherwise lead to a build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2). Excessive levels of CO2 can lead to students fatigue and even affect their concentration. When stand-alone purifiers are used, the noise or humming can be particularly distracting for younger children.
BSB also found that children spent an average of 15 minutes in the bus before going home; the opening and closing of several doors led to higher exposure to poor air quality. In response, the school implemented an anti-idling policy and installed HEPA filtration systems in the buses themselves. Though masks are sold in the school, Puttock says that they aren’t mandatory; BSB doesn’t put itself in the position of advocating for any one product. MSB, on the other hand, encourages students to wear masks when the AQI is above 180 and sells MSB-branded Vogmasks at school.
After MSB’s facilities were tested, the school began to measure PM10 particles and in the process realized it was much “dustier” then expected. This resulted in a change to the cleaning policies such as using different types of filters in the vacuum cleaners.
- 0-50 AQI: Windows and doors stay open for a minimum of 20 minutes. Air purifiers running on automatic.
- 51-100 AQI: Closed doors and windows. Air purifiers running on automatic. Outdoor play allowed.
- 101-200 AQI: Closed doors and windows. Air purifiers running on automatic. 101-149 outdoor play allowed. 150-179 students with respiratory problems excused from outdoor activities. 180-200 Pre-K and nursery outdoor activities canceled. Primary students restricted from high-impact activities.
- 201-300 AQI: Closed doors and windows. Air purifiers running on automatic. Below 249 primary students indoor activities only. Secondary students restricted from high-impact activities. Above 250 all students stay indoors and all high-impact activities restricted. Sports tournaments and outdoor ASAs canceled. Air purifiers running on highest level.
- 300+ AQI: All students stay indoors. No high-impact activities. Sports tournaments, outdoor ASAs, Beijing day trips canceled. Closed doors and windows. Air purifiers running on highest level, checked twice daily by Facilities team.
- 0-50 AQI: Windows and doors stay open.
- 50-100 AQI: Closed doors and windows. Outdoor play allowed.
- 101-200 AQI: Closed doors and windows. Below 180 outdoor play allowed. Above 180 restricted outdoor activities for all ages.
• Develop systematic approach
• Identify existing assets
• Design Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
Unlike in Shanghai, international schools in Beijing that are members of the International Schools Athletic Conference agreed to cap limits for outdoor tournaments. According to Travis Washko, the director of sports and physical education at BSB Shunyi, children are monitored before, during, and after PE classes and observations are documented. This is done especially for children with respiratory difficulties. Though the measure isn’t new (most schools do it), the process makes it easier for educators to observes students confined indoors. Both BSB and MSB have come up with various measures to respond to high AQI readings (see below). BSB has a school flag program where red, amber, or green flags are displayed at all exits to let everyone know if children are allowed outside or not.
• Share your goals
• Make IAQ meaningful
• Be transparent and inclusive
• Communicate results
Communication is key for ensuring everyone obeys air pollution policies. BSB’s policy is published and updated regularly on the school website. In addition, the entire school is sent an email with daily AQI and indoor PM readings from the front desk.
PureLiving helped Fangcaodi International School formulate an indoor air quality policy. Feng states that the communication strategy should involve training staff so that they can articulate why they are doing things differently and how to deal with specific situations to parents and students. PureLiving also set up a live indoor monitoring function at Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS), which is accessible to the public through a QR code. The company has done this in the past for other schools and commercial clients in Shanghai and Beijing.
• Solicit feedback
When it comes to air quality, school policies are constantly evolving as new technologies and best practices emerge. Schools differ widely in their policies, which are evaluated over time and informed by parent, teacher, and student feedback.
For schools that do not have a comprehensive air quality policy, PureLiving has a list of 10 tips for improving IAQ.
- Close doors and windows. Beijing’s outdoor PM2.5 levels are typically three to six times the recommended EPA standard. Opening windows might seem to bring in "fresh" air, but what it’s really bringing is all that outdoor pollution into the classrooms. Any air filtration measures are also defeated by having uncontrolled ventilation.
- Ventilate regularly. At the same time, chemical emissions from renovations, germs from sick children, and high levels of carbon dioxide will continue to build up indoors unless proper ventilation is maintained. The buildup of harmful gases can also damage health and filters. When the AQI is low, take the opportunity to open doors and windows; 20 to 30 minutes at a time is enough.
- Install HVAC filters. Install a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system if your system can support it, portable filters if it cannot. Ventilation is best achieved with an HVAC system that filters in fresh air from outdoors and flushes out indoor pollutants. If you have a powerful enough system, adding building-wide filters is much more cost-effective than buying individual air purifiers.
- Control moisture to avoid mold and damp. Moisture, whether from structural leak, flooding, or high humidity, inevitably leads to mold. Mold can cover a wall in less than 48 hours. Water needs to be removed with dehumidifiers or mops, and the leak needs to be identified and fixed before mold spreads.
- Do not allow basement rooms and storage closets to pile up. Every school has a storage room that may harbor mold, dust mites, cockroaches, and even rats. Avoid stockpiling paper, cardboard boxes, and anything with cloth or cellulose that can feed pests.
- Make sure that plans are being followed. Regular inspections send the right message and reinforce good habits. Just like your body, a building needs to be monitored and maintained to make sure it stays health.
- Take care of the youngest children first. Younger children are more vulnerable to poor air quality due to their faster respiration rates, underdeveloped immune systems, proximity to the ground, and higher likelihood of asthma and allergies. Protective equipment such as filters and masks should be prioritized.
- Use HEPA or highly-filtered vacuum cleaners. Bad vacuums will suck up larger particles and shoot the more dangerous tiny particles out the back, where they can be breathed in. Modern HEPA vacuums provide air that is as clean as what comes out of air purifiers.
- Conduct a baseline audit of your school’s indoor air and water environment. Having indoor environmental consultants inspect the school looking for problems and opportunities for improvement will help the school further its own action plan.
- Establish an air quality management plan and train the operations staff. All staff should be aware of the daily air quality, what the numbers mean, how that affects outdoor activity and sports, when to open windows, and how filters work. Continuous air quality monitors are invaluable because they can raise an alarm when levels exceed healthy limits; they can even automate filtration systems to turn on and off as needed.
There’s still time to join us for the Beijing International School Expo at Kerry Hotel from 10am-4pm, a weekend-long fair gathering 50 education exhibitors from around Beijing.
Photos: Dave PiXSTUDIO