Carbon Dioxide: The Invisible Indoor Air Pollutant in California’s Classrooms

Santa Clara County School District Addresses Classroom CO2 Levels with Pelican

Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and UC Davis recently released a study looking at ventilation in California schools – several right here in the Bay Area. Their findings: 85 percent of classrooms had levels of carbon dioxide, or CO2, above acceptable levels of 1,000 parts per million, having the potential to impact students’ health and academic performance.

“We were shocked,” said Wanyu Rengie Chan, one of the lead researchers of the study, “We were not expecting it.”

They were not shocked because of the issue itself, which has been studied for over a decade now, but shocked because the classrooms they monitored newly-installed Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) units. Chan says they believe the issue is largely due to improper installations, programming and maintenance, which she believes is largely due to a lack of awareness on the part of the schools and their districts.

But NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit was able to track down one school district in Santa Clara County where students and staff have been taking notice, and steps to address it.

“As East Side updates its current controls that are outdated, we want to provide a healthier environment for students to help improve their achievement, and to provide a healthier environment to thrive in,” said Roger Silveira, the Director of Facilities Maintenance and Operations for East Side Union High School District, the largest of its kind in Northern California.

HVAC Issues Resulting in High CO2 Levels:

  • Problems with installation of HVAC Systems
  • Incorrect HVAC Systems purchased
  • Improper controls and thermostats
  • No follow-up testing after installation
  • Poorly-maintained filters

Silveira says he began being concerned about the issue of CO2 levels in classrooms roughly two years ago when he stumbled across a research paper from the University of California, Berkeley. Since then, he has been actively working to address it – describing it as his obsession.

About a year ago, that obsession manifested itself in programmable thermostats that also monitor CO2 in classrooms. As of now, he says they are roughly 90 days away from monitoring every classroom across the district, which is home to 22,000 students.

Silveira says the initial monitoring showed that some classrooms were in the acceptable range, many were in the 1200 to 1300 range, and a few rare cases maxed out the monitors at 2000. But the new technology has allowed them to address the issue on a case by case basis, ensuring that students are getting plenty of fresh air.

Silveira believes there should be both state and federal laws regulating CO2 levels in classrooms. Currently, the closest requirements are found in Title 24 of California’s building code – which advise indoor levels of CO2 should not exceed more than 600 to 700 PPM from outside, roughly 400 PPM. There is also a recent program from the California Energy Commission requiring that all newly-installed HVACs be tested by a certified technician, but that won’t be enforceable until there are enough people to manage the workload, which there aren’t.

Ryan Lundell, who has been at East Side Union High School District for the last eight years, thinks the issue of CO2 levels and air quality in classrooms needs to be a priority for schools around California.

“I don’t care how great the teacher is or how excited the student is,” he said. “If that facility and that air quality is not where it should be, the learning isn’t going to happen.”

Click here to read the original story published by NBC Bay Area.