Unregulated Indoor Air Pollution in Schools Harms Students’ Health, Lowering Learning Performance

As the fifth wave of COVID-19 cedes in Hong Kong, schools are gradually getting back to normal. Students spend a large portion of their time daily in school facilities, and the indoor air quality (IAQ) in those environments significantly impact their health as well as learning performance.

 Common indoor air pollutants include CO2, CO, NO2, PM10, formaldehyde, ozone, volatile organic compounds, radon, and mold, of which the sources are poor ventilation, inadequate cleaning, renovation work, building materials, furniture, photocopiers, etc. Exposure to indoor air pollutants could cause headache, sore throat, eyes and nose irritation, dizziness, fatigue, and asthma; long-term exposure could even lead to respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer. Young students at developmental stages are especially susceptible to these health hazards.

 The United States Environmental Protection Agency has pointed out that good IAQ in schools could improve students’ concentration and test scores, at the same time reducing absenteeism. A study by the University of Manchester in 2020 has also found that maintaining lower air pollution levels by 20% could improve the development of a child’s working memory by 6.1%.

 Although having good IAQ in school facilities has proven to be beneficial to students, relevant regulations remain absent in Hong Kong. The government has stated last year in the Clean Air Plan for Hong Kong 2035 its plan to provide guidelines to schools in 2022 to promote IAQ management. However, whether the guidelines would only be voluntary, and if sufficient incentives and resources would be provided to schools for the implementation of IAQ improvement measures, are still unknown. It is thus uncertain that the guidelines could bring remarkable enhancement to IAQ in schools.

 Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, IAQ is particularly important since ventilation, which is a key factor of IAQ, is also vital to the prevention of viral transmission. CAN will continue to raise awareness of IAQ in schools and look into the upcoming guidelines, in order to ensure the protection of students’ health.