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Francis Koster: How fixing schools can help solve America’s rising health care costs

Third in a four-part series

One in five Americans works in or attends a K-12 school. If these schools were to adopt some existing but underused technology, we could see big reductions in the number of children and teachers needing expensive healthcare, and reduce the absenteeism rate in schools dramatically.

Back in 1995, the U.S. General Accounting Office used the term “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS) to capture the cumulative health impact of irritated eyes, noses and throats, upper respiratory infections, nausea, dizziness, headaches and sleepiness that are the result of not enough fresh air in schools.

After extensive research they declared that 20 percent of school children experienced these health issues from “sick buildings” at some time during the school year.

Since the time of that research, we have no way of knowing whether we have more or fewer sick buildings because there is no requirement at the federal, state or local level that air quality inside schools be measured!

Last school year, as a volunteer, I was placing air quality monitors inside a local primary school. I asked folks working in the principal’s office for advice about where the school might have fresh air issues and was directed to the school nurse’s office.

I knocked on the nurse’s office door. She opened it partially and peered out, looking stressed. I quickly explained what I was trying to do, and asked her what classrooms most of her sick kids came from.

She stepped aside, opened the door, waved her hand over half a dozen miserable youngsters, and without a moment’s pause rattled off a string of room numbers — all located along the same hall.

Although she did not know the cause, the health effects of a school without enough fresh air were well known to her — and those kids.

How do you measure the impact of poor indoor air quality inside a school on a child’s health?

One way is to count the number of days kids are sick. Schools with high numbers of sick days usually lack enough fresh air.

One of the earliest studies of this is from Sweden, where researchers took a look at a large daycare center that was housed in an old building. Before they did anything to the building, they measured student sick days over a one-year period. Then they put in modern air cleaning technology equipment before the start of the second year and recorded student sick days again. At the end of the second year they removed the air cleaning equipment, and during the third year they again counted student sick days.

During the first year, the absenteeism rate was 8.31 percent. In the second year, with the air cleaning equipment in place, the absenteeism rate dropped to 3.75 percent. And in the third year, after the air cleaning equipment was taken out, the absence rate rose again to 7.94 percent.

Other nations, including the United States, were impressed and tried similar efforts.

Connecticut set up a program to fix indoor air quality issues in its schools. The before and after numbers are stunning.

The city of Hamden saw one school cut its absence days from 484 to 203 in one year, and the nurses reported a large drop in the use of student inhalers. North Haven school had a drop of 48 percent in respiratory-related illness. The city of Waterford had a 66 percent decrease in air quality related health complaints in 9 out of 13 elementary schools.

In my previous columns I introduced you to the fact that providing pure air to students can raise their standardized test scores one or two letter grades — with the largest improvement seen in the learning rates of children from low income families .

Now I am showing you that bringing more fresh air into schools not only improves student learning, but students, staff and faculty can also have better health. For children whose homes also lack fresh air, and are dusty or moldy, their school can become a safe haven of health.

And think about this — if a child has to stay home, the parent often misses work as well. And if a teacher gets sick, the school system pays that teacher for a sick day, while paying out additional money for a substitute teacher.

Lack of fresh air causes lots of collateral damage.

In some cases, it’s possible to improve student success while preserving beloved old schools with rich traditions and history — simply by adding some equipment that brings in more fresh air.

These findings have been around for decades, but because school systems operate on tight budgets, much of the known research on the positive impact of pure air has not been put into practice.

It could be — if parents, local school officials and local elected officials were to work together to embrace the opportunity.

Next week: The Economics of Pure Air In Schools.

Kannapolis resident Dr. Francis Koster is a retired pediatric healthcare administrator with a passion for helping children maximize their potential. He has created a not-for-profit organization that for no charge lends meters to that “make the invisible visible” in schools’ air and water.

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