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Logging data and teaching, school air quality

An innovative air quality monitoring project is helping build a new base of knowledge in Washington State classrooms. As portable monitoring stations log air quality data they also act as information kiosks, teaching students, teachers, school administrators and custodians - anyone who walks by, really - about the ABCs of indoor air quality.

Technologist for the program is Rich Prill, building science and indoor air quality specialist for the Washington State University Extension Energy Program. Prill has spent decades teaching school officials across the Northwest how to keep school environments comfortable and safe.

"I consider myself an educator," Prill says. "We'd rather teach people to fish than give them a salmon." Now, working with the Washington State Department of Health (DOH), Prill has created 17 portable air quality monitoring stations to gather data and spread the word on air quality in schools.

The project began some five years ago, when the DOH obtained a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to gather data on environmental conditions in schools and look for links between those conditions and the health of kids. "We wrote into that grant that we wanted to look specifically at children and schools, and school environmental quality," said Glen Patrick, manager of the DOH Environmental Epidemiology Unit. "Kids are unique - they've got a lot of characteristics that make them susceptible to adverse environmental conditions. We all know about asthma."

We don't have those data
What we don't know, Patrick said, is what air quality conditions exist in schools. "In most cases, unless a school has had an extreme problem and brought in a consultant to do sophisticated testing, we don't have those data," he said. "We don't collect those data." The monitoring program is designed to fill that gap. Though the monitoring stations will be available for schools that suspect they have a problem, their main job is to collect baseline air quality data under normal conditions.

Eighteen months ago, Prill obtained a DOH grant to determine what air quality indicators should be measured in schools and build equipment to measure those indicators. So he assembled a committee of school maintenance veterans, facilities directors, health department experts and industrial hygienists to identify the key air quality parameters.

"What can we reasonably expect school districts to measure and monitor?" Prill said. "These people wear ten hats. They're way busy. They're doing emergency maintenance, not preventive maintenance. What makes the most sense? What gets measured gets controlled or fixed." Among the most practical and important parameters to measure, the committee recommended temperature, CO2, CO, relative humidity and airborne particles as the air quality factors to measure. The group also created a questionnaire to gather basic data on the classroom environment: building age, room function, the presence and age of carpet, cleaning regime and so on.

Prill assembled the first five monitoring stations in 2005, and recently completed an additional dozen under a $100,000 grant. As more than a million public school students in Washington head back to class in fall 2007 the monitors will be there too, distributed to the state's 296 school districts through nine regional Educational Service Districts (ESDs).

"We see this as a tool for the schools to use, to help them to evaluate how their systems are working," said Nancy Bernard, program manager for the DOH School Environmental Health & Safety Program. It's Bernard's organization that will manage the data gathering.

Information on Wheels
Since Prill completed the first stations back in 2005, they've gone through some design changes based on feedback from school staff. "We made improvements, based on the comments we got from the initial round," said Bernard. Each station is built on a wheeled audio/visual equipment cart. When educators pointed out that a full-size cart was too big to fit into a smaller vehicle, Prill switched to a smaller cart. Today's design measures 26 inches wide, 18 inches deep and 34 inches tall, and costs about $7,000 each.

A Fluke 975 AirMeter and Fluke 983 Particle Counter are bolted to the top, near racks that hold booklets of indoor air quality information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Labeling on the cart explains what the two Fluke instruments are measuring: the Fluke 975 measures CO, CO2, relative humidity and temperature, while the Fluke 983 counts airborne particles in six size ranges, from 0.3 Micrometer to 10 Micrometer.

Other signage on the side provides contact numbers for those who want more information, and explains the mission: "The indoor air quality in this school is being measured to ensure healthy, comfortable, and productive learning conditions for all."

The signs, booklets and labels are there to tell teachers, students, parents and staff what's going on, and engage them in the monitoring process. It's also part of an effort to keep schools from worrying that the measurement is designed to "check up" on how they are doing. That message is also being conveyed through orientation meetings with ESD risk managers and school officials.

Inside each cart is a binder full of background information, data collection forms, a laptop computer, a solid state thumb drive or jump drive and step-by-step instructions on how to conduct the tests. Those running the tests won't be air quality professionals - they could be English teachers or even students - so Prill has taken extra care to make the process easy to understand and straightforward.

When, where and for how long the testing takes place will be up to school officials. The Fluke instruments can log data for days at a time. When the test ends, the air quality data will be downloaded to FlukeView Forms software loaded on the monitoring station laptop. The report will then be copied to the thumb drive and e-mailed to the Washington Department of Health.

In the 50-building Vancouver School District north of Portland, Ore., assistant custodial maintenance crew leader John Weber likes the results he's obtained with Prill's first generation monitoring station.

"It's been really neat," Weber said, "especially for our HVAC techs. We haven't run into anything that says wow, that's a real problem, but I've taken data that shows the results of their activities, like fixing a damper that's been closed." And when Weber downloads the numbers in a busy classroom, everybody gathers around. They want to know about the air where they work and study, Weber said, and thanks to the school monitoring program, "they can see it for themselves."