Improving air quality in and around schools

by Anna Startin

Megan Bennett, Product Marketing Manager at Nuaire looks at how poor air quality impacts children both in, and getting to and from school, and what steps we can take to improve the air our children breath.

Schools should be a safe environment for children to learn and to develop the skills they need to take them into adulthood.  Under government guidance, schools must appoint a competent person to ensure they meet their health and safety duties. A competent person is someone with the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to give sensible guidance about managing the health and safety risks at the school.  But how can that person manage a risk they cannot see?  And what if that risk comes from an external source of which they have no control?  What’s more, what if they don’t even fully realise the level of risk they are dealing with?  Those are some of the problems when it comes to air quality and air pollution in and around our schools.

How dangerous is air pollution for children?

In the most recent annual air quality assessment (which covers 2022), the UK was non-compliant with the annual mean concentration limit value for NOx at a number of roadside locations in urban areas. It is estimated that 65% of the NOx concentrations at the roadside originate as NOx emissions from road transport.

Short-term exposure to concentrations of NOx can cause inflammation of the airways and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections and to allergens. It can exacerbate the symptoms of those already suffering from lung or heart conditions. Furthermore, it can react with other air pollutants to form ground-level ozone, which is damaging to human health and can trigger inflammation of the respiratory tract, eyes, nose and throat, as well as asthma attacks.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution because their bodies, organs, and immune systems are still developing.  A study by the University of Dundee has found children are more likely to be admitted to hospital with respiratory problems caused by air pollution than adults and that the damage to their lungs is irreparable. That’s because immature lungs are more susceptible to toxins, plus children tend to spend more time outside – including travelling to and from school – so have greater exposure to polluted air.

Expanding our knowledge

Over the years we have come to better understand the harm brought about by exposure to air pollution, even in small amounts.  Research is ongoing and is necessary if we are to make effective changes.

A new project in Glasgow, for example, is underway to measure indoor and outdoor air quality, in order to make positive change and tackle the big challenges of the future. The ‘two year GEMINOA’ project will review data from a network of air quality sensors throughout the city.  Interestingly, it has also deployed indoor sensors at schools to gather data to better understand the relationship between indoor/outdoor air quality and the effect of interventions such as making buildings more airtight, as well as mitigation measures, including improved ventilation.

Indoor air quality is very much understudied compared to outdoor air pollution.  The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has called for long-term funding for research to tackle indoor air pollution, including looking at regulations to tackle limits for indoor air pollution, such as VOCs.

The SAMHE (Schools’ Air quality Monitoring for Health and Education) citizen science project is also focussing on indoor air.  It is establishing a network of air quality monitors in schools across the UK, to generate an unparalleled dataset which will help researchers better understand schools indoor air quality and will provide evidence for better national policies and practice.  Poor air quality impacts pupils’ health and concentration, affecting attendance and attainment.

What can be done to improve air quality in and around schools?

The expansion of Low Emission Zones (LEZs) in urban areas is one solution being put forward.  Despite their controversy, LEZs are effective in reducing air pollution.  A study by the University of Bath on London’s LEZ implemented in 2008 and ultra low emission zone (ULEZ), introduced in 2019 found particulate matter (PM10) had been reduced by 13% between 2008 and 2013, compared to between 2003 and 2007, and nitrogen dioxide levels had fallen by 18.4% in 2019 compared to the period between 2016 and 2018.   This reduction in air pollution contributed to a 4.5% reduction in long-term health problems and an 8% decrease in respiratory issues, helping generate cost savings of more than £963m in Greater London.

Reducing emissions from transport by providing wider access to reliable, affordable and efficient public transport, plus encouraging walking and cycling (and making them safer!) will certainly have a positive impact for external air pollution.  But what about indoor air quality?  Reducing external air pollution will have a positive impact on internal air quality, but it’s not the entire story.

Education buildings can be some of the most diverse, with most of them having classrooms, kitchens, canteens, halls, gymnasiums and even swimming pools.  Indoor air quality varies tremendously not only between schools, but also within them.  Effective ventilation solutions must be deployed within schools to provide good IAQ that is conducive to learning.

When it comes to classrooms, systems that are powerful enough able to ventilate multiple rooms and that come with a filter to remove incoming pollutants, such as the Nuaire XBOXER XBC range, are ideal.  These also come with heat recovery, so are energy efficient.

For sports halls, the biggest challenge is CO2 and odours which must be removed. Our BPS range of packaged Air Handling Units are perfect for these environments as they are able to provide a high volume of air movement and do so with high efficiency. To not waste energy through running the unit when the space is not in use, it is good practice to use occupancy sensors and pollutant sensors (such as CO2 sensors) which control when units are active. This will prevent them running when ventilation is not required.

If the school is lucky enough to have an indoor swimming pool, then a ventilation system that can cope with high levels of humidity and corrosive chlorine needs to be specified.  Our Boxer Bespoke range of AHUs can be coated for such applications.

Toilets and WCs in schools are high use areas which can fill with indoor air pollutants and odours very quickly if not ventilated correctly.  Twin fans technology, originally invented by Nuaire in 1973, is standard practice for areas such as toilets. Duty share of the two fans within the unit mean that the fan continues to work in the event of one fan failing.

In school kitchens, a bifurcated fan, such as Nuaire’s Squif range, with the motor out of the airstream is a good solution, as it means that pollutants such as grease do not clog up the motor – something that can result in fan failure over time.

Addressing both external air pollution and indoor air quality is vital if we are to provide our children with a safe, comfortable place to learn.  No child should have to breath dangerous or stale air just to get an education.

Nuaire has been delivering clean air solutions for over 50 years, setting industry standards in residential, commercial and industrial ventilation systems.  For more information go to

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