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Indoor Air Quality Management

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Indoor Air Quality Management Plans: Does your District have a Current Plan?

Since 1997, the Minnesota Health and Safety Statute (123B.57)  has stated that school districts that wish to qualify for health and safety funding must have a health and safety program that complies with best practices, including indoor air quality (IAQ) management. This requirement does not apply to non-public and charter schools, although having a plan is highly recommended. In a 2014 survey, MDH found that about 75% of districts that responded had an IAQ Plan; however, about half the districts did not responded to the survey. It’s important for school administrators to review their plans, complete missing components, and ensure consistency with the state’s best practices. 

There is a large body of research on the health and learning benefits of good IAQ. These have been reviewed and summarized by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Closer to home, MDH completed a study in 2006, and found that implementing IAQ Management Plans cut allergen levels and staff dissatisfaction in half.

What are the best practices? The IAQ Plan best practices are based on the USEPA Tools for Schools kit, and consist of the following:

1)     Having a designated IAQ Coordinator

2)     Conducting annual assessments:

a.      Walk-through inspections

b.     Ventilation evaluation

c.      Building maintenance evaluation

3)     Implementing a written IAQ Management Plan

4)     Completing annual review and school board approval of plan

The IAQ Coordinator should develop and continue to implement the IAQ Plan. She or he should be identified in the IAQ Plan and have the authority to receive and respond to complaints. The role should be separate from a maintenance role. Moreover, the IAQ Coordinator should be able to answer the basic questions from parents and respond to their concerns, including where to find information about the school, what parents can do to change a situation in the school, and where they can find checklists and other information to evaluate the home and other environments.

The IAQ Plan should be brief and clearly describe the policies and procedures currently in place. It should not function as an encyclopedia of information or what policies could be followed if resources where available. It’s critical to review the plan every year and to edit it to reflect the current situation in the district.

The IAQ Plan can include a large variety of policies or a narrow range—whatever fits the needs of the district. There should be a section describing the issues identified every year and the plans to address them. Regulatory requirements could be summarized (e.g., asbestos, smoking, etc.) or excluded, but regardless these apply to schools. Other recommended policies should be considered (e.g., radon, moisture control, pets, etc.).

To learn more about IAQ and developing a plan, consider attending an upcoming class; these are listed in the announcement section of this issue. The MDH website has details on how to develop an IAQ Plan, assessment checklists, model policies, concern forms, and resources for parents:


Cleaning in Schools: Custodians of Health

Perhaps the most widespread deficiency in the indoor environmental quality of Minnesota schools is inadequate cleaning. While a dirty, dusty, and minimally cleaned school may not constitute an environmental health emergency, it will likely worsen allergy and possibly other symptoms in sensitive building occupants. Although many districts have good written cleaning guidelines, these guidelines may not be implemented due to funding limitations, insufficient numbers of maintenance staff, or inadequate training of staff. 

Why is dust a concern? Allergens are commonly found in school dusts, and this has been documented in dozens of published studies. The types of allergens that may be found in schools include dust mites, cockroaches, mold, cat, dog, mice, and pollens. The levels of allergens measured in schools have, in many studies, exceeded risk thresholds for asthma symptoms and sensitization.


In a MDH study completed seven years ago, elevated levels of allergens were found in carpet, floor tile, and upholstered furniture in Minnesota elementary schools and child care facilities. The levels of dust mite allergens were mostly low, but about 10% of the samples were moderate to high. About half the samples had moderate to high cat and/or dog allergen levels. Mold spores were also ubiquitous, while cockroach allergens were rarely detected.


Studies have correlated levels of allergens in classrooms to respiratory health effects, such as allergy, asthma, and upper respiratory symptoms. It can be estimated that at least 15-20% of occupants in school buildings may be susceptible to environmental pollutants that can be found in school dust. In addition, poor indoor air quality (IAQ) may affect student learning, staff productivity and attendance. For example, one study found allergens affected subjects’ typing, arithmetic, logical, reasoning, memory, and creative thinking skills by 2-6%.


In MDH’s school study, implementing an IAQ Management Plans that emphasized cleaning was associated with a significant decline in levels of allergens present in classrooms. After cleaning improvements were made, approximately 70% of areas that were sampled had lower levels of cat and dog allergens. Moreover, staff perception of IAQ improved.


A cleaning program that involves thorough, frequent, and efficient cleaning of rooms is critical to creating a healthful school environment. Some maintenance supply vendors offer services to develop detailed maintenance plans for schools, including calculating the proper number of staff.  Facilities management companies and professional associations recommend between 10,000 and 25,000 square feet per full-time custodian.  In our experience, the ratio in most Minnesota schools is about twice this range.


Allergens are commonly found in schools. School administrators are encouraged to review their custodial and associated practices and policies, to find opportunities for improvement. Most importantly, adequate resources must be devoted to facilities maintenance. An effective cleaning program should be a key component to fostering a healthful and productive learning environment.

Mercury in Minnesota Schools

Mercury spills have occurred in Minnesota schools. Some of these spills were costly to clean up. Since 2010, state law has prohibited mercury and mercury-containing instruments in Minnesota schools. However, it is likely still present in some schools, since it was frequently found by the MN Pollution Control Agency during the Mercury Free Zone (MFZ) program.

From 2000 to 2009, one-third of Minnesota schools participated in the MFZ program. The MFZ program offered free building assessments, equipment exchanges and education. While some schools inventoried their facilities, others requested MFZ staff search for mercury spills, stored mercury, and mercury-containing equipment. The assessment utilized a mercury-detecting dog, Clancy, and a real time mercury-analyzing instrument. Of the 856 schools that pledged to be mercury-free, 335 schools were assessed and approximately 50,000 students and teachers were educated about the dangers of mercury.


In 2011, data from 130 assessed schools (1,387 rooms) were analyzed. The purpose of the analysis was to characterize air concentrations and mercury sources. The median breathing zone concentration was low (16 ng/m3), but there were 22 rooms (1.6%) that exceeded the recommended Minnesota Department of Health long-term exposure limit of 800 ng/m3. Vapor sources were identified in 86 schools (66.2%) and 251 rooms (18.1%). Vapor sources were most frequent in laboratory storage rooms (44.7%) and science laboratories (31.1%). Prior spills (76.6% of all sources) were the primary vapor source, and these were usually located in sink drains (46.9%) or cabinets (28.1%). In many cases, school staff was unaware of the presence of mercury in their schools.

While the MFZ program and the law that went into effect in 2010 have impacted the presence of mercury in schools, it can still be found in schools. School staff should continue to check for mercury on a routine basis, for example as part of the annual school indoor air quality walk-through. Lab, storage, and nurse’s rooms should receive special focus. Staff should be routinely reminded about the law, that they should not bring items to school and whom to notify about items discovered. With some checking and education, a significant and costly problem may be avoided.  

For more information about mercury in schools visit:

Green Ribbon Schools Award

Be recognized for your school’s efforts at being Green! Apply for the US Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools award. This award honors public and private early childhood, elementary, middle and high schools that are exemplary in all three of the following areas:

·        Reducing environmental impact

·        Improving health and wellness

·        Providing effective environmental education

Awardees receive a plaque and a flag for the school, local recognition, and an invitation to the national ceremony in Washington, DC. The awards are announced annually on Earth Day and the national award ceremony occurs in the summer.

Applying for the award provides an opportunity to analyze energy and water usage, waste reduction and transportation. Schools review the practices that promote healthy practices by students and teachers. In addition, teachers examine their curriculum for instruction in environmental concepts and skills.

The application for Minnesota schools is available in late September and is due in early January. Information about the Green Ribbon Schools program is at For the application and local details, contact John Olson, Minnesota Department of Education - Science Specialist, [email protected], 651-582-8673.


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