Interview With EPA’s Tracy Enger: Air Quality In Schools

BY ON January 20, 2012

 Tracy Enger

A building’s air is only as clean as the air around it. There is no indoor air filter in existence that can eliminate toxins coming in from the outside. Air pollution from cars and industry, pollution from idling buses–all these have an impact on children’s health.

That said, it is even more important to control pollutants that originate within buildings.

Schools, for example, can and should be taking regular and consistent steps to improve the quality of their indoor air. To learn more about pollutants within schools and how to control them, I telephoned the EPA’s Tracy Enger a few days before Christmas.

Tracy facilitates indoor air quality tools for schools to create a safer and healthier physical environment within their walls. Because her program doesn’t have regulatory authority, it works in partnership with local community leaders.

She stressed that the air quality inside a school can have as much impact on students’ performance as anything else going on in their classrooms. And she likened having great teachers, an outstanding curriculum, and the latest technology inside a school with poor air quality, to putting the brain of a genius into a body that barely functions.

Because Tracy is not an official EPA spokesperson, the edited conversation that follows reflects her opinions and experience only.

Interview With EPA’s Tracy Enger

How aware are parents and school children of the issues around indoor air pollution and asthma?

They are more aware than they’ve ever been, but not nearly as aware as they need to be. We’ve started to see more and more parent involvement because of mold crises and the different critical impacts the physical condition of a school has had.

There are day-to-day issues that have to be dealt with in terms of indoor air quality and the environmental health within schools that are just as significant, but don’t get the airplay that a mold problem would. The actual physical space that students are in, and the things that are in that space, in the air, all make an impact.

That’s why there are anti-idling policies for school buses. We also address things like pets in the classroom, and promote integrated pest management rather than free range pesticide spraying. This is because those things really have educational impacts on kids, as do other things that people don’t think about like lighting or the amount of fresh air in a classroom.

What are the ways that schools should be controlling and monitoring indoor air pollution?

Schools are not like any other large commercial building. The siting is different. What goes on inside them is different. As we find with health issues all the time, kids are not just little adults…especially when it comes to respiratory things. They breathe faster and more deeply.

Then we put them inside these buildings that are often not built to spec, are definitely not operating to spec, and where often there’s deferred maintenance issues. Schools have everything going on inside them — cooking, shop, automotive, chemistry. And they likely have a sub-standard HVAC system, and more people than are supposed to be there. It’s a recipe for trouble.

Every behavior that every person in the school takes can impact indoor air quality. A teacher who brings in a plush chair from home, or a cuddly toy, or grandma’s afghan is not trying to create an asthma attack. The same goes for a custodian who is stripping floors in the middle of the school day. But once you realize the impact there, then people can choose different behaviors.

Our Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Program includes a voluntary set of guidelines, behaviors, and actions that schools can take to address indoor air quality. We looked at schools across the country to see what they needed and what they were doing, and put together a kit that provides a comprehensive approach to dealing with indoor environments in schools.

What steps is the program taking to bring asthma under control?

Our asthma goal for schools is around the number of indoor air quality programs in place across the country. This year we are looking to add another 2000 school districts with really robust indoor air management programs in place.

We find that if leaders devote themselves to creating successful programs around indoor air quality in schools, they then use that model to address other environmental health issues. If they are focused strategically and systematically on indoor air quality, it touches on asthma, on chemical clean out, and pesticides. Every environmental and health issue in the school is going to be rooted somewhere in indoor air quality. So instituting an indoor air quality management program has broad corollary effects for environmental health throughout the school.

Does your program work with the PTA?

PTA’s across the country have been involved partners. They are co-sponsors of our Tools for Schools kit, but there’s always an opportunity for stronger partnerships.

How can parents help make their child’s school safer?

One of the things that parents can do is to raise these issues in their community and with the leaders in their school. They can educate themselves. Go to the website, download the information, then partner with the school to create a better environment.

It’s important to have the best teachers and curriculum and the latest technology, but we tend to take those amazing resources, stick them in a crappy building, and then get surprised when we don’t achieve the educational results that we want. Parents need to recognize that indoor air quality really does have an impact on the educational success of every student in the school.

Thank you, Judith for this interview!


TOPICS: Asthma, Indoor Air Pollution, Pollution, Schools

  • I totally agree with everything said, but am sad that nothing is mentioned about the effects of leaf burning and leaf smoke (which can burn for hours, last for days, and be harmful to all those who breathe it) by people that live around (within a few mile radius) schools. I live in a town where leaf burning is allowed any day of the week, any day of the year, any time between 8am and 20 minutes after sundown. My sons have asthma and are not only missing out on play time in their own backyard, but outside activity times during the school day as well. This isn’t just a few times, but for at least 3 months in the Fall and again in the Spring. It is frustrating that the law protects our children (in IL) from cigarette smoke on school grounds, but not equally harmful leaf smoke. That is why I have started a petition on Change.Org: and why my family is planning to try to sell our home to move to a town where leaf burning is banned. Attempts to make a positive change for the health of our town have been blocked repeatedly and it breaks my heart to watch children who didn’t ask to have a life-threatening condition, suffer because someone is burning leaves and they have to be trapped inside. All children should have a right to breathe clean air!

    • Karen,
      You make a good point about leaf burning. It didn’t come up in this piece because we were talking about what goes on inside of school buildings.

      But now that you have raised the issue, I’m going to learn more about it. Thank you for raising the issue.

  • JohnL

    Dont forget the impact of Wood Boilers. Across the street from South Seneca School , Ovid , NY is a Outdoor wood boiler. Indoor and Outdoor wood boiler pollute the air with PM 2.5. When PM 2.5 gets in your lungs it does not come out! Pm 2.5 is so small that its been detected in homes at hazardous levels 800ft away. Google or look at you tube you will see how much they pollute.

  • Cassie


    This is a huge subject that needs all parents to take action to make changes. School buildings are so polluted that they should come with a warning label. Are you aware that school maintenance is not regulated; therefore, each corporation decides what, if any, work is done to maintain a building? Some corporations don’t clean the schools on a regular basis, let alone implementing preventative measures.

    I had to quit teaching, because the building where I worked made me so sick that I developed asthma and related health problems that I’ll have the rest of my life. I saw what this environment did to my students, so I took action. Now, there’s stronger legislation in Indiana. It’s not enough, though, since corporations aren’t required to provide a healthy environment in schools. This problem has been an issue for at least 25 years: it’s time to stop it! No one should get sick at a school they’re required to attend or because of their job.

    Keep writing about ‘sick schools!’ The situation won’t change until parents make it happen!