Indoor air pollution in schools and hospitals (2023)

Georgie Hughes examines how indoor air pollution is harming our most vulnerable in buildings which are supposed to be safe: schools and hospitals

We’re told that danger lies outside where we’re more at risk of pollution from cars, lorries and factories. But sometimes it’s in the very places where we feel most safe that the dangers lie. Much of air quality campaigning and research focused on these outdoor sources of pollution, so it’s easy to forget about the issues indoors. However, with 90% of our time on average spent indoors, we could be breathing in harmful pollutants and particulate matter without even realising.

Indoor air pollution in schools and hospitals (1)

(Video) Indoor Air Quality devices benefits in hospitals and medical offices

Vehicles, power plants and industrial activities are the most common sources of air pollution, but as these hazardous substances work their way into the atmosphere, they don’t just disappear. Pollutants can work their way inside buildings and are then trapped inside, creating unhealthy spaces, as poor ventilation means dirty air can’t be filtered out. Emma Rubach, Head of Health Advice at Asthma + Lung UK, explains: ‘Dirty air comes in many different forms, both indoors and out. In towns and cities, the main source of air pollution is road transport. Indoors, it comprises dust, dirt, mould, or gases in the air that could be harmful to breathe in, this could include chemicals in products such as carpet cleaners, paint and air fresheners, as well as fumes from cooking and woodfired stoves. Poor outdoor and indoor air quality has been linked to lung diseases like COPD, lung cancer, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, so it is a very serious problem.’

Even the places where we are meant to feel safest can pose a problem. Hospital buildings are usually located close to busy roads out of necessity to make them easily accessible. But this means patients are breathing in polluted air, as hospitals suffer from external pollution and particulate matter (PM2.5). A 2018 Asthma + Lung UK report found that more than 2,000 health centres are located in areas with PM2.5 levels above World Health Organisation (WHO) limits. This includes major teaching hospitals, clinics, GP surgeries and two of the UK’s biggest children’s hospitals – Great Ormand Street Hospital and Birmingham’s Childrens Hospital. The problem is widespread across the UK, with one in three GP surgeries and one in four hospitals in England in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution.

Rubach says this can pose a serious risk to millions of people who are already vulnerable, aggravating existing conditions or worsening acute illnesses. Hospital staff who work in these conditions are also at risk, exposed to high air pollution levels on a regular basis. She adds: ‘All air pollution is harmful to human health and can exacerbate lung conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), leading to life threatening asthma attacks or a flare-up of symptoms such as breathlessness, wheezing and coughing.’

(Video) Healthy Schools: Improving Indoor Air Quality and Environmental Health

To protect patients from these adverse health conditions, Matthew Perkins, Managing Director of air purification company MedicAir, says it’s important to properly ventilate indoor spaces, as the air within a space needs to be changed regularly to lower pollution levels. ‘In a medical environment generally, we will be looking to achieve 10 air changes per hour within those spaces,’ he says. ‘That’s the best way to keep patients and staff safe. Within a school or an office environment, we’re looking at three to five air changes per hour in those slightly lower risk areas.’ Hospitals require air changes more often as there are unwell people within these environments, with some spreading respiratory viruses and bacteria. Perkins, alongside two co-founders, designed MedicAir purifiers to specifically target all sources of indoor pollution. The purifiers have a combination technology that targets pollutants and VOCs with an activated carbon filter, while its UV-C light and anti-microbially coated HEPA H13 filter can eradicate bacteria and viruses.

MedicAir purifiers are now present in over 20 NHS Trusts, helping to clear the air in a range of environments where there’s close contact between patients and staff, such as wards, GP surgeries, dental practices and care homes. Not only has this benefitted patients by protecting their health, Perkins says he’s also seen the purifiers make a difference to staff wellbeing: ‘You see a decrease in staff sickness, increase in productivity, you see an increase in patients and staff feeling safe in those environments. There’s a huge amount of intangible benefits and improvements to the technology as well.’ Indoor air quality is growing area of concern, he adds, but it is difficult to address, as there is currently a lack of government regulation for indoor spaces. ‘Obviously from a government regulatory perspective, you can’t regulate what the air quality in someone’s house is like, you can regulate the outdoor quality,’ he observes. ‘I think it gets spoken about less because there is less of a kind of centralised responsibility for it.’

Schools face similar problems with air quality, as children and young people are exposed to harmful PM2.5 and pollution, affecting health and impacting academic performance – a Harvard study linked high air pollution concentrations with lower average academic test scores. John Lumb, Director at Evotech Air Quality, says Britain’s old building stock is part of the issue, as schools are in a poor state, with some even pre-dating the 1900’s. A huge government survey evaluating the condition of over 22,000 school buildings between 2017-2019 found that the estimated cost of remedial work to repair school buildings was £11.4 billion. ‘Our built environment is widely regarded as the worst in Western Europe because it’s the oldest,’ Lumb explains. ‘Now it’s creaking and it’s not really fit for purpose our schools.’ In response to the report, the government committed to rebuilding 500 schools over a 10-year programme, with funding earmarked for 400 projects so far. However, the Department for Education revealed in July that it had received more than 1,000 applications for the programme during a four-week application window in early 2022. This means that around 54.8% of applicants will miss out on funding, according to Schools Week. Lumb adds: ‘The amount of money that’s allocated by government is only scratching the surface in terms of repairs and rebuilds of new schools, but we can understand why there’s a lot of pressures on government and the Treasury. We can’t just go out and rebuild all of the schools.’

(Video) Indoor Air Quality in Schools and Childcare Facilities During COVID-19

With progress on repairing schools slow, Lumb says he was concerned about the implications of leaving children and staff in unsafe school environments. Government data shows there are currently nine million schoolchildren and just under 600,000 teachers in the UK. Classrooms are typically highly occupied, with around 25-30 people in one room, while poor ventilation means there’s a mix of outdoor air pollution, PM2.5 and even airborne microplastics trapped inside. ‘There’s this ticking time bomb,’ Lumb says. ‘We’ve got all these kids going to school and yes, we’re giving them a good education compared to many countries around the world. But they are sat in polluted spaces.’ The team at Evotech decided they could help schools in the local area by monitoring air quality in classrooms and raising awareness of the dangers of indoor pollution.

The #CleanAirSchools campaign launched in 2021 and five Calderdale schools were fitted with sensors in playgrounds and classrooms to track CO2 levels throughout the academic year in a first of its kind study. This covered classroom hours only from September 2021 to July 2022, not including lunchtimes and bank holidays. With 9.2 million sensor readings, the results were staggering – the highest single CO2 reading was 5,966 parts per million (ppm), 4,466ppm over Department for Education guidelines of 1,500ppm. The total number of hours spent over these CO2 guidelines was a whopping 4,846, while sensors detected 57,999 CO2 alerts over 1,500ppm throughout the year. This means children are regularly exposed to extremely high levels of carbon dioxide in classrooms, a gas which is known to affect cognitive abilities, increase the risk of virus transmissions and cause kidney and bone problems. Improved ventilation is the solution to this, explains Lumb, but the problem is how can this be achieved on such a large scale with little funding available? Then there is the fact that outdoor air is often polluted with fumes from cars on nearby roads, so opening windows will not fix the issue.

Evotech is now monitoring levels of particulate matter in the Calderdale schools, starting from late 2022, to see how classrooms are affected by this throughout the year. The company has also been raising awareness of air quality in schools through presentations and a variety of resources. Children could track air quality using smiley faces using air quality whiteboards, with red, unhappy faces meaning high CO2 levels and green, happy faces representing low, safe levels of CO2. Lumb says we are starting to see the early signs of indoor air quality being taken more seriously, particularly in corporate environments that have brought in air purification systems on the basis of wellbeing. New building requirements introduced last June also require all new commercial buildings to have CO2 monitors in place. ‘It’s slowly trickling down,’ says Lumb. ‘But my worry is about the nine million schoolchildren.’ Both schools and hospitals are filled with the most vulnerable members of society who are already susceptible to the effects of pollution. It’s vital indoor air quality is improved in these environments, but how this will be achieved is still under debate.

(Video) How to sustain indoor air quality and keep schools open

This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Air Quality News

Indoor air pollution in schools and hospitals (2)


What is indoor air pollution answer? ›

What is Indoor Air Pollution? Indoor air pollution can be any number of pollutants. Radon, asbestos, tobacco smoke, solvents, cleaning solutions, carbon monoxide, mold, and fungus can pollute indoor air.

What is the biggest reason why indoor air pollution is a serious problem? ›

Household air pollution exposure leads to noncommunicable diseases including stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.

Which is worse outdoor or indoor air pollution explain your answer? ›

EPA's Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) studies found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas.

What are the solutions proposed to resolve the poor health outcomes of indoor air pollution? ›

One of the main ways to reduce indoor air pollution is by ensuring proper ventilation. Proper ventilation helps remove polluted indoor air and replace it with fresh, clean air from outside. When indoor spaces are not adequately ventilated, pollutants can build up to dangerous levels.

What are 3 causes of indoor air pollution? ›

Primary Causes of Indoor Air Problems
  • Fuel-burning combustion appliances.
  • Tobacco products.
  • Building materials and furnishings as diverse as: ...
  • Products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care, or hobbies.
  • Central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices.
  • Excess moisture.
  • Outdoor sources such as:
Dec 5, 2022

What are 5 example of indoor air pollution? ›

Indoor Pollutants and Sources
  • Asbestos.
  • Biological Pollutants.
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO)
  • Cookstoves.
  • Formaldehyde/Pressed Wood Products.
  • Lead (Pb)
  • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
  • Pesticides.
Feb 27, 2023

How harmful is indoor air pollution? ›

Effects on Human Health

Health effects associated with indoor air pollutants include: Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.

Who is most affected by indoor air pollution? ›

Indoor Air Quality

Certain groups are potentially more vulnerable than others to indoor air pollution. These include children, pregnant women, people over 65 years of age, and persons suffering from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases (e.g. asthma).

What are the 4 major indoor air pollutants? ›

Indoor air pollutants are particles that are found in the air inside of buildings. In healthcare settings, the four major indoor air pollutants are asbestos, biological pollutants, carbon monoxide, and emissions from cookstoves and heaters. Each of these pollutants can have serious health effects.

What is the number 1 indoor air pollutant? ›

The Environmental Protection Agency has noted that excess moisture, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and radon are four major indoor air pollutants. They result in damp and stuffy houses.

Why is it important to reduce air pollution? ›

Reducing pollutants in the air is important for human health and the environment. Poor air quality has harmful effects on human health, particularly the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Pollutants can also damage plants and buildings, and smoke or haze can reduce visibility.

What are main causes of air pollution? ›

Vehicle emissions, fuel oils and natural gas to heat homes, by-products of manufacturing and power generation, particularly coal-fueled power plants, and fumes from chemical production are the primary sources of human-made air pollution.

What is the best way to prevent and control indoor pollution? ›

Use high-emitting products (e.g., paint, glue, caulk, candles and incense) outdoors when possible, or increase ventilation when using products or engaging in activities indoors that may generate pollutants. To do so, you can open windows and doors when the weather permits or turn on local exhaust fans.

What are the three most common ways to reduce pollutants in indoor air? ›

14 Ways to Reduce Indoor Air Pollution
  • Open Windows. ...
  • Ban Smoking. ...
  • Give Your Pets a Bath. ...
  • Use Exhaust Fans. ...
  • Put Down a Doormat. ...
  • Change Filters. ...
  • Skip Fires. ...
  • Don't Cover Up Odors.
Sep 18, 2020

What are 5 easy causes of air pollution? ›

The Short Answer: Air pollution is caused by solid and liquid particles and certain gases that are suspended in the air. These particles and gases can come from car and truck exhaust, factories, dust, pollen, mold spores, volcanoes and wildfires.

How important is indoor air quality? ›

Short-term exposure to poor air quality can result in illness and disease, while long-term exposure can lead to serious complications.

What are ways to prevent air pollution? ›

What you can do about air pollution
  1. Drive your car less. ...
  2. Keep your car in good repair. ...
  3. Turn off your engine. ...
  4. Don't burn your garbage. ...
  5. Limit backyards fire in the city. ...
  6. Plant and care for trees. ...
  7. Switch to electric or hand-powered lawn equipment. ...
  8. Use less energy.

What affects indoor air quality? ›

Smoke, vapors, mold, and chemicals used in certain paints, furnishings, and cleaners can all affect indoor air quality and our health. Buildings affect overall well-being because most people spend most of their time inside.

Which suggestion could help reduce air pollution? ›

Reduce the number of trips you take in your car. Reduce or eliminate fireplace and wood stove use. Avoid burning leaves, trash, and other materials. Avoid using gas-powered lawn and garden equipment.

What causes more indoor pollution? ›

Most indoor air pollution comes from sources that release gases or particles into the air. Things such as building materials and air fresheners give off pollution constantly. Other sources such as tobacco smoke and wood-burning stoves also cause indoor pollution.

Which two pollutants are most often found in indoor air? ›

Sources of indoor pollution include:
  • Mold and pollen.
  • Tobacco smoke.
  • Household products and pesticides.
  • Gases such as radon and carbon monoxide.
  • Materials used in the building such as asbestos, formaldehyde and lead.
Mar 28, 2016

Who has the cleanest air quality? ›

Cleanest air in the world in 2022. The cleanest air in the world is in Zurich. The pollution status is determined on the basis of average levels of PM2. 5 measured over a period of 12 months.

Is mold an indoor air pollutant? ›

Mold is an Indoor Air Pollutant

Dust, pet dander, and hair styling products are common indoor air pollutants that most households have endured at some point or another. However, these pollutants are usually not a problem until there is a lot. Mold is very similar.

What are the effects of air pollution on human health? ›

It increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer. Both short and long term exposure to air pollutants have been associated with health impacts. More severe impacts affect people who are already ill. Children, the elderly and poor people are more susceptible.

Can we reduce air pollution? ›

Using public transport is a sure short way of contributing to less air pollution as it provides with less gas and energy, even carpools contribute to it. In addition to less release of fuels and gas, using a public transport can also help in saving money. Lesser vehicles on roads will contribute to lesser emissions.

What is the most common human health response to air pollution? ›

Short- and/or long-term exposure to air pollution has been associated with a wide range of human health effects including increased respiratory symptoms, hospitalization for heart or lung diseases, and even premature death.

Where is air pollution the worst? ›

California tops the list, with the largest number of polluted counties, a new study shows. More than one in three Americans—some 119.6 million people—live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to a new study released by the American Lung Association.

Why is indoor air quality important in school? ›

Research has shown indoor air quality can be quite detrimental to student performance and attendance. Improving IAQ has been shown to: Improve student performance including addition skills, number comparison, and reading and comprehension. Reduce absenteeism due to lung diseases such as asthma.

What are two things that you can do at school to reduce pollution? ›

Ways to prevent pollution
  • Reuse school supplies instead of buying new ones.
  • Invite do-it-yourselfers to come in and teach students how to repair toys and clothes.
  • Repurpose old or damaged clothing into new designs.
Jan 19, 2023

What are three 3 basic strategies to improve indoor air quality? ›

There are three basic strategies to improve indoor air quality:
  • Source Control.
  • Improved Ventilation.
  • Air cleaners.
Jul 6, 2022

What causes poor air quality in schools? ›

Toxic construction materials, which are often banned or no longer used, but still in place in many schools; Unhealthy practices, such as misuse of harsh cleaning products that can cause asthma and lung irritation; and.

What are the effects of poor air quality in schools? ›

Side Effects From Poor Air Quality In Schools

Students Have Lower Concentration Levels - Because of higher carbon dioxide levels and poor indoor ventilation, many students easily lose focus during school, ultimately hurting their education.

What are 15 ways to reduce air pollution? ›

Polluted air is costing us lives
  • Minimize air pollution from cars.
  • Walk, bike or use public transportation.
  • Save energy.
  • Maintain your wood stove or fireplace.
  • Recycle & buy recycled products.
  • Consume less & choose sustainable products.
  • Eat local, organic produce & less meat.
  • Grow your own food.
Jan 17, 2019

What are the five ways of keeping air clean and safe? ›

Clean Air at Home
  • Choose pump sprays instead of aerosol sprays. ...
  • Refuel garden equipment carefully. ...
  • Cleaner lawn and garden equipment. ...
  • Leaf Blowers. ...
  • Storing gasoline. ...
  • Use latex paints. ...
  • Choose low volatile organic compound (VOC) products. ...
  • Check for fever with a digital thermometer.

What is indoor pollution with example? ›

Tobacco smoke. Household products and pesticides. Gases such as radon and carbon monoxide. Materials used in the building such as asbestos, formaldehyde and lead.

What are two examples of indoor air pollution? ›

  • Asbestos,
  • Biologic agents,
  • Building materials,
  • Radon,
  • Tobacco smoke, and.
  • Wood stoves, gas range, or other heating devices.

What is meant by indoor pollutants? ›

What is Indoor Air Pollution? Indoor Air Pollution means any air quality contamination within and around buildings and structures. Some of the most common examples of indoor air pollutants are solvents, moulds, smoke, pesticides, gases, and pet dander. In most homes, there will be some level of indoor air pollution.

How can we prevent indoor air pollution? ›

Use high-emitting products (e.g., paint, glue, caulk, candles and incense) outdoors when possible, or increase ventilation when using products or engaging in activities indoors that may generate pollutants. To do so, you can open windows and doors when the weather permits or turn on local exhaust fans.

What are the main effects of indoor air pollution? ›

Effects on Human Health

Health effects associated with indoor air pollutants include: Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.

What is the most common indoor air pollutant? ›

Indoor Air Pollutants and Health
  • Asbestos.
  • Building and Paint Products.
  • Carbon Monoxide.
  • Carpets.
  • Cleaning Supplies and Household Chemicals.
  • Cockroaches.
  • Dust Mites.
  • Formaldehyde.
Mar 23, 2023

What are the main causes of air pollution? ›

Vehicle emissions, fuel oils and natural gas to heat homes, by-products of manufacturing and power generation, particularly coal-fueled power plants, and fumes from chemical production are the primary sources of human-made air pollution.

What is indoor air pollution for kids? ›

Indoor air can become polluted, or spoiled, by adding harmful things to it, just as outside air can. For example, household cleaners, dust, paints, bug sprays, smoke from cooking or cigarettes, and fibers from some building materials all can make indoor air unhealthy to breathe.

What are the symptoms of poor indoor air quality? ›

Poor indoor air quality can cause health effects that are similar to those of common cold or influenza. These symptoms include itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, dizziness, and fatigue. They're often short-term and easily treatable.


1. The importance of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) for our schools.
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2. What is Indoor Air Pollution? EXPLAINED!
(India Science)
3. Indoor air quality in New Zealand homes and schools
(University of Otago, Wellington)
4. Indoor Air Quality In Schools
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5. IAQ in Michigan Schools: Improving Indoor Air Quality to Respond to COVID and Beyond
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6. Indoor Air Quality Testing in Glendale CA


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