What's in the air
Bob Segall/13 Investigates
An Eyewitness News investigation finds thousands of Indiana children attend schools plagued by poor indoor air quality. Fueled by a lack of resources, a lack of knowledge and a lack of interest, many schools and government agencies fail to detect and correct school air problems that can impact students' health and their ability to learn.
13 Investigates has discovered an invisible problem in classrooms all across Indiana.
You can't see it or smell it. You can't taste it or touch it.
But it's there -- sometimes far more than it should be – and it can impact students' health and education.
The problem is elevated levels of CO2, also known as carbon dioxide.
"Carbon dioxide is actually a natural chemical that is formed when we breathe," explained Veda Ackerman, a pediatric pulmonologist at Riley Hospital for Children. "If you go back to basic biology class, we all breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2 … At low levels, it doesn't cause problems at all."
But in schools with poor air circulation, CO2 levels can rise rapidly when students pack into a classroom.
13 Investigates found schools across the state have been cited for CO2 levels considered too high by the Indiana State Department of Health and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That's when students can begin to feel the impact.
How students suffer
"Higher levels of carbon dioxide make a person sleepy and it also decreases their learning ability," said David Gettinger, a facilities manager who monitors CO2 levels for Perry Township Schools. "More carbon dioxide means there's not enough oxygen in the classroom and you don't think as straight."
Ron Clark, who conducts school indoor air quality inspections for the state health department, says elevated CO2 levels are one of the most common problems he finds in schools.
"It means they aren't bringing in enough fresh air for students," Clark said. "It would impact their education and their learning level."
Several studies, including a soon-to-be-released report from the University of Tulsa, link elevated carbon dioxide levels and poor air circulation with decreased student performance.
Prolonged exposure to CO2 is also linked to decreased student health.
In schools with high carbon dioxide levels, poor airflow often means pollutants in classrooms are not being flushed out by fresh air. That can trigger serious medical issues in children with asthma and other health problems. Asthma is the leading cause of student absenteeism in the nation, resulting in millions of missed school days each year. Nearly a quarter million Indiana children have been diagnosed with asthma, according to the state health department.
Teachers affected too
Sandy Wampler says teachers also suffer the impact of elevated carbon dioxide and poor air quality.
After teaching math and reading for 14 years, Wampler quit her job when her pulmonologist diagnosed her with "sick building syndrome" that induced chronic bronchial asthma.
"There were days I wasn't sure I'd survive – literally," she told Eyewitness News. "At home I was OK, but at school I couldn't walk around the room because my lungs had closed up so much that I couldn't take a breath to get up. As soon as I quit, my health greatly improved."
Wampler says she complained to her school administrators for nearly two years before they finally allowed state health inspectors to test the school.
Test results showed Stokes Elementary School in Lebanon had elevated levels of CO2, and that school is not alone.
66% of schools cited
13 Investigates obtained results of all school indoor air quality inspections performed by state health inspectors during the past nine years. (ISDH maintains the reports dating back only to 2002.) The inspection reports show 66% of all schools tested by the state had classrooms that were cited for too much carbon dioxide.
That's two out of every three schools where students were exposed to CO2 levels that exceed state standards.
And most schools never get a state inspection at all.
Last year, ISDH conducted air quality inspections at 23 schools – that's only 1% of schools in Indiana.
Why aren't all schools tested?
"Basically, the state laws say when our agency receives a complaint, we are to go out and investigate, so it's only complaint driven at this time," Clark explained.
That means no complaint, no test. The state health department essentially works under the assumption that if no one files a complaint, a school has no indoor air quality problems to investigate.
"If it was a much broader problem, we'd be getting a lot more complaints than what we're hearing," Clark said.
But remember, carbon dioxide is invisible and its impact on student learning is often overlooked, so most parents would never think to complain.
And many schools – let alone parents – don't know when an air problem exists.
Local schools surprised
Last week, 13 Investigates decided to visit area schools that do not have a current complaint about air quality. At nearly all of them, electronic CO2 detectors showed carbon dioxide levels that exceed state and federal standards for schools. Among the findings:
--A classroom at Northwood Elementary in Mooresville registered 1354 parts per million of CO2.
--Several classrooms at Mooresville High School registered nearly 1900 parts per million of CO2.
--A classroom at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Perry Township registered 1636 parts per million of CO2
--A classroom at Rousseau McClellan School (IPS School #98) in Indianapolis registered 1640 parts per million of CO2
"You don't really ever want to get over 1500," said Gettinger, as he monitored elevated CO2 levels in Mrs. Ramos' fourth grade classroom at Douglas MacArthur Elementary. "It means we need to get more oxygen in here. I wasn't expecting that."
Perry Township Schools quickly found and repaired the source of the problem: a malfunctioning damper on a heat register that prevented fresh air from flowing into the classroom.
Maintenance staff at Mooresville Schools and IPS also discovered equipment problems that resulted in high CO2 readings during our visits. Most of the problems are now fixed.
How high is too high?
The state and federal guideline for CO2 levels in schools is based upon a recommendation from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). It sets the maximum CO2 limit for classrooms at no more than 700 ppm above the current carbon dioxide level of outside air. Because outdoor CO2 levels are usually in the 300-400 range, CO2 levels inside a school are generally considered elevated if they exceed 1100 ppm.
By comparison, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard for carbon dioxide is 5000 ppm, although most workplace literature suggests levels above 1000 probably indicate inadequate ventilation which is more likely to result in complaints such as headaches, fatigue, and eye and throat irritation.
Some schools now test for CO2 on their own. Most do not.
Complaints from parents and teachers can change that.
What you can do
State law requires the Indiana State Department of Health to investigate all complaints regarding school indoor air quality. The law also requires the department to not release the names of individuals who file complaints without their permission. If you believe there might be an air quality issue at your child's school, you can contact the ISDH indoor air quality program at (317) 351-7190.
Some county health departments also offer indoor air quality testing, although that is usually found only in Indiana's largest counties.
Lisa Cauldwell, indoor air team leader at the Marion County Health Department, conducted air quality inspections at more than a dozen Indianapolis-area schools in 2010.
"We look to see if there's anything that doesn't look right or smell right," Cauldwell explained. "We'll look for asthma triggers, things that harbor dust mites, water damage, anything that can cause problems."
Like the state inspections, local inspections take place only when prompted by a complaint.
"Parents have to speak out if they think there's a problem," said Clark.
"It's something that if parents don't take a stand, nothing will change," she said.
"We just don't know what to do"
Indianapolis Public Schools is now monitoring the air at IPS School 98 following a complaint from Laurie Deycasa.
She filed the complaint because her daughter, Melanie, began suffering asthma attacks a few days after the fourth grader started attending School 98.
"She starts this school and then all of a sudden, steroids, inhalers, ER visits. It's been a very stressful school year," Laurie said. "She's already missed twelve days this year. She's never missed that many days."
Both Melanie and her mom think the problem could be something in the air at her new school.
"It's just like you can barely breathe, I know there's something that's making my asthma be bad," Melanie told Eyewitness News. "It's so bad, we just don't know what to do."
She now uses an inhaler in school and receives a special breathing treatment each night when she gets home.
IPS industrial hygienist Sam Bedka says no air problems have been detected at the school to explain Melanie's breathing problems.
"I wish I did find something so we could give [Melanie] some answers," Bedka said while monitoring CO2 levels at School 98. "We'll keep looking but, so far, nothing."
More air problems found
Too much carbon dioxide isn't the only issue schools are battling in their fight against poor indoor air quality.
State reports show nearly half of schools inspected by ISDH also had elevated levels of bacteria or fungus. At some, inspectors found visible mold. All are triggers for asthma and other health problems for students and teachers.
"Our children are obviously breathing that air everyday, so it really needs to be addressed at each local school," said Jodi Perras, director of the Indiana environmental watchdog group Improving Kids' Environment (IKE). "I think there's a lack of knowledge of the link between school air and health and performance issues affecting children."
Sometimes, air quality problems identified at schools are fixed right away.
But 13 Investigates found other times when nothing happened at all.
For example, state health inspectors found high levels of carbon dioxide and bacteria during an April 2006 inspection at Laurel Elementary School in Franklin County. According to the inspection report, air vents had been turned off in several classrooms, contributing to the elevated readings. ISDH sent a letter to the principal and to the superintendent of Franklin County Community Schools detailing the air problems along with recommendations on how to fix them.
The state health department responded to another air quality complaint at Laurel Elementary School in September 2010 and, again, inspectors documented high levels of carbon dioxide and bacteria. Again, air vents were not working properly – this time because of broken power switches. Four years after inspectors first documented indoor air problems, none of the problems had been fixed.
"If there was a problem it should have been brought to me, but I can tell you it wasn't brought to my attention," said Dennis Brown, the school district's maintenance supervisor. "The past superintendent didn't mention it to me. I was here and should have been involved in it."
The case highlights a gaping hole in the state's school air inspection program: schools are not required to fix air quality problems identified by inspectors, and if they don't, the state cannot do anything about it.
"We can't require them to fix what we find," Clark said. "We make recommendations, but they're not enforceable."
That was supposed to change.
"We can do a lot better"
Two years ago, Indiana lawmakers passed a law requiring ISDH to establish new rules governing school indoor air quality, including best practices to help ensure "healthful indoor air quality in schools." New rules could include strengthening the state's air inspection program by requiring schools to implement corrective action outlined in state inspection reports. The legislature gave state health officials until July 1, 2010, to adopt the new rules. That deadline has long passed, and still no new rules.
"We're still working on them," Clark said.
The legislature also passed another law that requires state leaders to create an air quality panel designed to improve school air. Under the law, the governor, ISDH and the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction were required to appoint members to the panel.
What ever happened to that panel?
13 Investigates has learned the advisory group hasn't met even once during the past six years.
The Indiana Department of Education, which is responsible for appointing three of the twelve panel members, told WTHR indoor air quality is an issue for the health department – not the department of education – and that IDOE has "no ability to handle air issues."
"We certainly want to make sure all school buildings provide a safe learning environment, but the air quality is not an issue in which we have any expertise," said IDOE spokeswoman Lauren Auld.
The governor's office has not yet responded to WTHR's questions about the school air panel. Governor Mitch Daniels is required to appoint five members of the group.
"There is no panel. There are no recommendations. It doesn't exist and it should exist," said Perras "I don't think it's been taken seriously enough and I think we can do a lot better."
What to look for
Little state oversight means parents and teachers need to get more involved, educating themselves on the causes and symptoms of bad air in schools.
School officials tell WTHR the biggest cause of their indoor air problems is old schools buildings with outdated equipment.
At many schools – like Rousseau McClellan School in Indianapolis (IPS School 91) – broken and air vents and malfunctioning dampers prevent adequate fresh air from reaching classrooms.
"It can be a constant battle," said Bedka. "In the older building, things break and we need to get out there to fix the problems."
To improve air flow, IPS has started replacing many of its old air vents and boilers with new ones, and many IPS schools now have CO2 detectors right inside each classroom.
"We think ongoing monitoring is important and we've spent more time and resources on this than most school districts because we realized we had a problem with so many old buildings," said Richard Myers, director of IPS's environmental management program. "I think monitoring is something districts will have to do. I think it's the responsible thing for them to do."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, common classroom items such as stuffed animals, pets, plants and carpeting can negatively impact indoor air quality by introducing dust mites, harmful bacteria, fungus and mold. All can trigger allergies and asthma in students, and WTHR found those things in nearly every school we visited.
Often, teachers bring those items into their classroom to make students feel more at home without realizing the impact on air quality.
"Teachers are in the business of educating. They don't always understand the dynamics of the room they're in, so it's an education issue," explained Cauldwell.
"All of this is important to the learning process, and we need to all be aware of that," said Jim Patrick, maintenance director at Mooresville Schools.
He says the school district removed some carpeting last year from some classrooms at Northwood Elementary School following complaints about the school's indoor air quality.
"It did seem to help. People did feel better after that," Patrick said, adding that fewer students have missed class since the carpeting was removed. "Absenteeism from asthma is huge, and the students can't learn if they're not here. It's something that's now really on our radar."
Some Indiana schools now ask parents and bus drivers to respect a no-idle policy while in the school parking lot. By reducing carbon monoxide emissions from cars and school buses, schools can improve the quality of outside air that is circulated into their classrooms.
The EPA has designed an indoor air quality "Tools for Schools" kit that offers comprehensive resources to help teachers and school districts improve school air. The kit is free and can be ordered through the agency's website. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/schools/actionkit.html
Part of the EPA's school air quality improvement program includes a recommendation that schools create a team of teachers, custodial staff, parents and administrators to tackle school air issues.
Few Indiana schools have implemented that recommendation.
"It's not necessary for a school to put a carbon dioxide monitor in every classroom all the time, but what they should have is a good indoor air quality team that looks at how the air handling system is working and how the school can improve the air," Perras said. "Schools should look at indoor air quality as a factor in student performance and develop a team of people who can address that."
To see results of indoor air quality inspections at Indiana schools, click here to visit's WTHR's searchable online database. You can see if inspectors have been to your kids school and what they found in the air.
Marion County Health Department (also investigates complaints related to school indoor air quality) 317-221-2266
Asthma Alliance of Indianapolis (helps children and families work with schools to develop an asthma action plan) 317-221-2473