Signs of Unhealthy Air at School

Learn how to know if there's a problem with the air quality at school and what steps you should take.

Are you concerned about the quality of the air in your school? Do you or your child have health symptoms, such as sneezing, coughing or headaches that are worse during the school day but improve at home? If so, you may have an indoor air pollution problem at school.

Some situations are emergencies.

They include:

  • Gas leak
  • Spills or releases of hazardous materials or flooding onto porous materials
  • Sewage spills
  • Sudden onset of headaches, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, which may signal carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Widespread breathing difficulties

In those situations, take immediate steps to get people out of danger and limit harm:

  • Evacuate the area if necessary.
  • Notify and seek help from the appropriate emergency agency, such as the fire department, gas supplier, health department, or hazardous waste authority.
  • Get medical help for people with symptoms.
  • Ventilate the area. Use temporary fans to help blow the air outdoors.
  • Tell other building occupants about the problem.
  • Fix the source of the problem.

If you aren't sure

Do health symptoms improve when you leave the room? Do they return when you come back? Do children complain of headaches, dry throats, nausea, eye irritation, or difficulties breathing when they are in the room? If so, you may have an indoor air pollution problem and should explore the following potential sources:

  • Are there machines indoors that could give off odors, particles or chemicals, including copiers or printers?
  • Are new or additional cleaning products being used?
  • Are there chemicals used in the classrooms that give off odors, particles or gases? Are the emissions properly controlled and/or vented to the outside?
  • Are there pets or other animals in the classroom?  
  • Has the room recently been remodeled, painted or has new furniture or carpeting been installed?
  • Has anyone brought in materials or products that give off odors, gases or particles, such as sprays, perfumes or fragrances?
  • Is food being stored in the room?
  • Has kitchen or food garbage been removed?
  • Are there outside sources of odors or chemicals coming indoors, such as school bus exhaust, or nearby construction?
  • Are heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems working properly and well-maintained? Are they sized properly for the space? Are vents or grills blocked?
  • Is anyone smoking indoors or near the building? No one should smoke or use tobacco products on school property.
  • Can you see or smell mold or mildew?
  • Is the humidity regularly above 50 percent?
  • Are there leaks, standing water, or excess moisture anywhere?

Tell someone

If you suspect your school has unhealthy air, take these three steps:

  1. Let your principal, maintenance staff, or the indoor air quality contact  know there may be a problem. Follow the usual and proper steps to alert them, as you may need to document the steps you took later.
  2. Tell your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Report the symptoms to your school or district's health or safety officer. The state or local health department may also need to be informed. Ask the health or safety officer if you should do that yourself.
  3. Work with administration as they investigate the problem. The process may take longer than anyone wants because the underlying problems may be difficult to identify.
  4. Take action to implement changes inside your classroom that improve air quality. Even small changes, like those found in our 5 Ways to Protect Air Quality in Schools resource, can help to improve air quality.  

The American Lung Association has been a leader in healthy schools for over 20 years. We worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create the Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Toolkit, which includes this Problem-Solving Tool to help schools identify and address indoor air quality problems.

Page last updated: July 26, 2023

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