Sick school prescription: Ensuring scholars’ health

by FM Media
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Building biologist, PAULINE FERGUSON shares some tips to help ensure occupant health at educational facilities.

Ensuring occupant health at any public facility is a juggling act, but it is particularly difficult at educational facilities. The occupants of educational facilities for children are in a vulnerable stage of their life – their immune systems aren’t fully developed yet and they’re encountering many different experiences and potential hazards every day. Adults who are engaged in education can also be vulnerable due to lifestyle, diet, lack of sleep, stress and other associated pressures.
The current marketing-driven obsession with anti-bacterial everything and the resultant germ phobia is not helping. Furthermore, society’s desire for a ‘magic pill’ that ends illness and disease instantly has contributed to the overuse of antibiotics and the evolution of ‘super bugs’.

Are we obsessed with cleanliness to the point of making ourselves ill from too many chemicals? In many public facilities I have recently visited, particularly schools, I have noticed an overwhelming smell of chemical cleaners – that sickly sweet smell of lavender scent that has replaced the pine scent of last decade.
While cleanliness is important, if a room smells strongly of cleaning products, fresh air is not adequate. Indoor spaces should not hold a particular smell. There should be adequate fresh air to allow the occupants to breathe easily and for our bodies and brains to function correctly.
Indeed, if there is inadequate fresh air, the occupants may have less brain function and poorer memory, resulting in lack of concentration, inability to retain information and thus poor grades.
Natural cleaning products, not chemical ones, are a better option, and there should only be enough product used to actually clean the surface – not enough to leave a smell. Ask yourself and your cleaning staff where the idea originated that there needs to be a retained odour in the room for it to be considered clean. Do you prefer a room that has no perceptible odour or one that is heavy with the scent of fake lavender?
If a room smells musty, damp or mouldy, chemicals can be overused in an effort to remove the source. However, usually all this does is mask the smell for a while, replacing the musty smell with a chemical scent. It can also contribute to the actual problem; for example, over-cleaning a carpet can result in dampness being retained in the carpet, thus providing even more food for the mould. Chlorine-based cleaning products do not kill mould.

I personally don’t think carpets and educational (or any public) facilities mix well. If you’ve ever pulled up a carpet, even after you’ve vacuumed it for an hour, you’ll notice that there is still dirt trapped underneath. If you take the carpet outside and beat it, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the dust that comes out. You may even notice damp stains or mouldy stains that you had no idea were there. This is a fairly common story told by anyone who has removed a carpet.
Hard surfaces may reflect noise and be less springy on the feet, but they are much easier to keep clean; they don’t retain moisture, making them less likely to harbour mould, and they are also less likely to retain chemical smells from cleaning fluid.
I have mentioned mould a couple of times now. This is because the World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified mould and dampness as the leading causes of poor indoor health. Maintenance of buildings to exclude moisture and ensure adequate ventilation can help; however, if moisture is introduced into a building through items like carpets, we’re placing the facility at risk.
Mould is very pervasive and, by the time it is large enough to be seen by the naked human eye, it can have travelled 17 kilometres. In a classroom, that houses perfect food sources, such as papers, books and soft furnishings, we owe it to our health to reduce the likelihood of introducing mould as much as we can.

Fresh air is vital to health. You may have noticed that in larger, closed-in buildings people tend to get sleepy after lunch at around two or three pm. There are a few different ways to combat this, but the easiest is to increase the fresh air intake into the body. Open the window, breathe deeply and do a few stretches and some exercises to get the blood flowing. Encouraging exercise between classes – walking to the next class, for instance – is a good idea. This must be combined with fresh air intake. Having windows open in classrooms is also beneficial.
The other obvious benefit of windows (at least during the day) is natural light. Humans function better with adequate and appropriate light, and the idea that computers need to be used in a darkened environment is a throwback from the 1970s and 80s that needs to be discarded. In the earlier years of computer use, screen technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is today. Contrast wasn’t as good and so, to use computers at that time, the ambient light needed to be less. These days, contrast and screen brightness can adjust to the ambient light (take your smartphone outside and check what happens to the screen brightness) and you can actually use most computers and tablets in good light. Natural light is better as it reduces eyestrain and headaches, and improves concentration and information retention.
The optimal classroom would combine the natural features and benefits of outdoor – fresh air, light and ambient surroundings – and indoor – protection from inclement weather, shade as required and warmth when necessary.

These days instant, wireless connectivity is almost mandatory. However, are we sacrificing health for convenience? A lot of my colleagues in the natural health and building biology fields think that radio frequency – mobile phone and Wi-Fi signals – is the ‘new asbestos’. This is a heated and controversial subject, and one that I feel needs to be investigated further before we make any decisions regarding the benefits versus the danger.
My colleagues and I have noticed, however, more people exhibiting and describing symptoms of electrical sensitivity. Those symptoms can include (but are by no means limited to): short-term memory loss, irritability, mood swings, headaches, short-term memory loss, poor or disturbed sleep, redness and itchiness of the face, ‘prickly’ sensations on the face and neck, poor concentration and short-term memory loss (yes, that was deliberate – good on you for picking it up).
Obviously, some of those symptoms can feed on each other. For example, disturbed sleep can contribute to mood swings and irritability; however, if the person is exhibiting all of the above, electrical sensitivity may be an issue.
Mobile phone and Wi-Fi frequencies are known to contribute strongly to these.
If possible, connect computers via Ethernet cables rather than Wi-Fi, and switch mobile phones to flight mode when not using them for calls (such as during classes or if you have it on your bedside table at night). Switch Wi-Fi off when it’s not in use, especially at times of rest or sleep. Cordless phones are just as bad as mobiles. Go retro with a corded phone – it’s much better for your health.

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