How to Know if There's a Problem

Learn the signs of unhealthy air 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 exhaust the air.
  • 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 building? Do they return when you come back into the building? If so, you may have an indoor air pollution problem and should explore the following potential sources.

  • Are there machines indoors that could be emitting odors, particles or chemicals, including copiers or printers?
  • Are new or additional cleaning products being used?
  • Are there chemicals used in the classrooms that emit odors, particles or gases? Are the emissions properly controlled and/or exhausted to the outside?
  • Have you recently remodeled or added new furniture, carpeting or painted?
  • Has anyone brought in materials or products that give off odors, gases or particles, such as sprays, perfumes or fragrances?
  • Has food been stored in the kitchen or other areas of the workplace?
  • 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? 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 or standing water anywhere?

Tell someone

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

  1. Let your principal and building management 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 company'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 management as they investigate the problem. The process may take longer than anyone wants because the underlying problems may be difficult to identify.

Your employer is legally responsible for informing you of general and specific hazards connected with your job. Your employer is also responsible for providing you with a safe and healthful workplace. You can help by being alert for unsafe and unhealthful working conditions and reporting any problems.

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: November 17, 2022

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