Poor air quality in UAE classrooms can harm children’s health

February 28 2015
air quality in classroom

Published The National UAE, Saturday

DUBAI // New research has found evidence of poor indoor air quality in UAE classrooms that may be detrimental to children’s health.

Data gathered by researchers at the British University in Dubai revealed above-normal levels of air pollutants in a majority of schools participating in the study.

The researchers also found evidence of exposed wiring on the floor, worn-out building materials, patched flooring and walls, fire hazards and cracked walls.

The findings, published in the journal Frontiers of Architectural Research, have prompted researcher Prof Bassam Abu Hijleh to call on the Government to step up regulation and monitoring of indoor environment and air quality in UAE schools.

“More, stricter standards have to be imposed and, other than just imposing these standards, they have to figure a way of actually policing it, monitoring these schools to make sure that these standards are being adhered to,” said Prof Abu Hijleh, dean of the Faculty of Informatics and Engineering and head of the Sustainable Design of the Built Environment programme at the British University in Dubai.

“You have, let’s say, KHDA going and checking on schools and seeing how students are doing academically and to look at the facilities at the schools, but I’m pretty sure no one looks at the indoor quality inside the school. If they have done that, they will find that it is too bad.”

KHDA, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, oversees private schools in Dubai.

The British University team visited 16 public and private elementary schools in Dubai and Fujairah from April 2012 to February 2013. The research has only now been released, but there is nothing to suggest air quality has improved since February last year, especially as costruction has picked up post-crisis, and the number of cars has increased – two contributing factors.

Academics measured levels of total volatile organic compounds, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, formaldehyde and particle mass concentrations. They also measured the temperature, lighting, acoustics and spatial conditions in classrooms at the schools. The data were compared with the limits recommended by Dubai Municipality, which are based on international standards.

“One of the most important things that we focused on was the levels of CO2 in the classroom, because the higher the CO2 levels, the more people will feel drowsy, they will become inactive because essentially the body is not getting enough oxygen,” Prof Abu Hijleh said.

Of the 16 schools examined, only two had levels of carbon dioxide below the recommended value, which is 1,000 parts per million.

“One of them was 910 the other one was 950. So they were high on the conservative side, but barely passing on the most loose of regulations. We found one that was almost 3,000 – so three times as much as the maximum that is allowed,” he said.

“The main impairment here is the impact on the students’ wellbeing, feeling – even the psychological impact – because if they’re not comfortable, if they’re drowsy, and what have you, it will have an impact on the student. They will get edgy. Imagine if you’re, let’s say, sleepy. How would people feel when they are sleepy? They’re definitely not comfortable, they’re definitely stressed out. This could cause something similar, it could cause people to feel stress because of these high levels.”

The researchers also found that the levels of particle mass concentrations – or dust – in the all of the classrooms exceeded the World Health Organisation’s limit of 150 to 230 micrograms per cubic metre. The average dust concentration measured in the classrooms was 1,730 micrograms per cubic metre, and at least one classroom had a measurement as high as 9,828 micrograms per cubic metre.

The researchers said this was of “great concern considering the nature of exposed occupants – young children”, according to the study. “Exposure to high levels of (particle mass) on a continuous basis would have adverse health implications for brain, lungs, heart and blood.”

Exposure could lead to symptoms including coughing, runny nose, sore throat, respiratory problems, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and various cardiovascular problems, according to the study. The classrooms also exceeded the recommended threshold for total volatile organic compounds and the levels of carbon monoxide in the air.

Prof Abu Hijleh said he hoped that “the people who are in charge would recognise that there are problems in most of the schools and that, when they’re doing guidelines for new schools or existing schools, they need to ensure that they include guidelines as to what is a proper indoor environment quality that needs to be maintained at the school. And more importantly, after that, a way of checking on it.

“You need someone who has experience in indoor air quality to be able to assess these things. So maybe they can include an assessor like this in the team that goes and checks on schools. And some of these things are easily done. You can have handheld instruments that can give you instantaneous measurements.”

The KHDA said it did not have any devices to monitor the indoor environment quality of classrooms, but added that it did make unannounced visits to schools to perform visual inspections of the building’s interior. It also works in conjunction with other departments such as the Dubai Health Authority, the Roads and Transport Authority and Dubai Municipality.

“The Knowledge and Human Development Authority operates annual compliance visits to schools. During these unannounced visits we assess numerous areas including classroom interiors, outdoor and indoor play equipment, food courts and canteens, teaching employment letters, school permits, transport and the main hall,” said Amal BelHasa, chief of compliance and resolution commission.

“If any concerns are raised, they will be immediately referred to the relevant government department. For example, an issue with school buses would be sent to RTA, while any concerns regarding building maintenance would be referred to the municipality.”

The Ministry of Education did not respond to requests for comments.