School Air Quality May Be Worsening Children’s Asthma Symptoms


A concerning new study shows that poor air quality in schools may be compounding the dangerous effects of asthma in children, leading to worsening symptoms and decreased lung function.

The study of 284 students between the ages of 4 and 13 – encompassing nearly 40 elementary schools across the United States – found the presence of multiple indoor allergens contained in dust samples collected at the facilities.

Flickr Image Courtesy: U.S. Department of Education, CC BY-SA 2.0
Flickr Image Courtesy: U.S. Department of Education, CC BY-SA 2.0

The most common substance was mouse allergen, which was found in nearly all – or 99.5 percent – of the dust samples collected by researchers.

“In this study of inner-city students with asthma, exposure to mouse allergen in schools was associated with increased asthma symptoms and decreased lung function,” state the study authors in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Children exposed to higher levels of mouse allergen were more likely to experience an “asthma symptom day” than those where mouse allergen was less prevalent, and they saw a 4 percent drop in lung function as measured by forced expiration.

The researchers also found elevated rates of dog allergen, as well as rat, cockroach and cat allergens. These allergens, along with mold and dust mites, are considered common triggers of allergic asthma, which can lead to inflamed airways and make it difficult to breathe.

“These findings demonstrate that the school environment is an important contributor to childhood asthma morbidity. Future school-based environmental interventions may be beneficial for this important public health problem,” add the researchers.

Working With Schools to Find Solutions

The new study marks the first time outside researchers have collaborated with schools to assess environmental allergens and their impact on the student population, states an accompanying editorial.

“One of the study’s significant contributions is that it highlights the importance of collaborating with schools to understand the effect of the school environment on student health. Without such collaborations, the scientific framework for ensuring that school environments are safe for children is not possible,” states the editorial.

About one in 10 children has asthma, and more than half of all children with asthma suffer from a serious attack every year, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC notes that schools can “take steps to fix indoor air quality problems” and make asthma medication readily available to help alleviate the problem.

The new study adds urgency to the situation, although the best way forward remains unclear, according to the researchers writing in the editorial. “These findings raise many questions, such as: Should school environments be tested for allergens? If so, how should the results be interpreted, given that there are no clear ‘healthy’ thresholds for allergens? Is it feasible to implement interventions to reduce allergen levels in schools, and how would such interventions be funded?”

The researchers note that collaborations between health agencies and schools “are not easy to forge and require that schools are willing to embark on a path that may identify potential hazards.”

Yet they consider the health implications more than enough motivation to tackle the issue head on. “These questions are difficult to answer from both a scientific and public policy standpoint, but should be considered by school systems, health departments, health system, communities, public health and policy researchers, and others, especially in communities whose children have a high burden of asthma morbidity,” they write.