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Asthma Australia: Good learning is in the air

Kids spend a large portion of their childhood at school and will breathe tens of thousands of litres of air during their young lives.

The air kids breathe at school plays a crucial role in their ability to learn and be healthy, in both the short term and long term.

Just like the food they eat, clean air is important. Everything from allergies, asthma and reduced cognitive function to the transmission of viruses can be affected by what is in the air.

Asthma ranks as the leading health condition affecting Australian school-aged kids, more than any other condition. It is these same kids that lead the nation’s asthma hospitalisation rates.

The life of a child with asthma often leads to school absenteeism, lowered participation, embarrassment and decreased self-esteem. Asthma in kids is directly linked to declining mental health, including anxiety and depression.

What is in the air has a strong intersection with good breathing, health and academic performance.

Studies have shown that exposure to air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), can impair cognitive abilities, attention span and memory retention. It can also cause behavioural issues, including irritability, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

Exposure to air pollution can trigger an asthma flare-up that can escalate to a serious attack. It can also lead to allergic reactions and symptoms, as well as respiratory infections.

As we learned through COVID-19, poorly ventilated areas can be a big issue in the transmission of viruses, which can lead to asthma exacerbations and other health complications, especially for kids. There are a variety of ways to improve the quality of air in schools.

Check the air and cleanliness in classrooms

Control sources of pollution: Dust, mould and allergens make the air unhealthy for teachers and students – dusty carpets, cluttered rooms, mould and mildew behind bookshelves, ceilings or damp areas are a big issue. Keep a good cleaning routine in place and use low-chemical products. Do not delay getting professional help for mould infestations.

Clean ventilation systems: It is important to have someone regularly check and clean the ventilation systems in classrooms. This helps make sure the air can flow properly and filters out any harmful things in the air.

Temperature control: Temperature has an important role in asthma and overall health. Try to maintain a temperature between 18 degrees and 25 degrees. Use electric sources for heating and cooling, and avoid non-flued gas heating.

Open windows: When there is no pollen risk or air pollution sources outside, and the temperature is moderate, open windows to ventilate.

Protect the air

Air purification systems: Those fitted with HEPA filters are extremely effective at making air squeaky clean, so consider investing in an adequate system for classrooms. This will make a massive difference to the performance and health of students, from virus transmission to breathing well.

If schools are on a main road: Traffic pollution contains harmful concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. Put measures in place to reduce the exposure of students to outside sources, such as shutting windows during peak hour.

Idle off programs: Consider looking into programs that encourage parents to idle off at pick-up zones to reduce the concentration of traffic exhaust being inhaled by students.

Air quality policies and training

Aerosol sprays, strong perfumes and deodorants: Update your school policy to encourage roll-on deodorants and remove strongly scented sprays or ‘air fresheners’. Spray deodorants and perfumes contain airborne chemicals that can be highly irritating for sensitive students and teachers. Side effects include worsening asthma, headaches and a reduced ability to learn.

Air quality policy: Do you have one? Air quality is a known health risk and schools have a responsibility to ensure the health and wellbeing of their students and staff. When air quality is poor outside, ensure your school has an adequate plan to keep kids safe, especially sensitive groups like those with asthma. This could also extend to days when pollen levels are high and extreme (for sensitive groups only). This will be a great relief to parents, students and staff.

Training: Ensure all teachers are trained in asthma first aid by completing Asthma Australia’s free course and Schools Asthma Health Check. 

Clean air school initiatives

The University of Sydney’s CleanAir Schools is a great way to involve students in learning about air pollution and how to monitor it. The program involves portable air quality sensors that can provide data at five-minute intervals to measure pollutants like fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), temperature and relative humidity.

Finally, there is nothing better than teaching students about air pollution as part of their studies. This will ensure kids have the tools they need to stay well at school and at home.

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