Green Schools: Ensuring Student Health and Well-being

Health and well-being for most of us are words that are synonymous with being physically healthy and emotionally satisfied. Many factors contribute to one’s health and well-being. But what about buildings? An overwhelming base of evidence shows buildings have an undeniable impact on an individual’s health and well-being. 

Why healthy buildings?

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Americans spend 90 percent of their time, on average, indoors.

With so much time being spent inside buildings, it is no surprise that the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) has an effect on the building occupants’ health and well-being.  IEQ is an indicator of the quality of the indoor conditions, such as air quality, acoustics, lighting, and thermal comfort, to name a few. When these conditions are less than adequate, they can have negative consequences on the people who live, work and play within that building space.

Alternatively, creating healthy buildings with healthy indoor environments can have a lasting positive impact on occupants. Healthy buildings are linked with higher productivity, lower absenteeism, less illness, and overall greater satisfaction. These positive consequences are a win for all building types, but when we consider one of the most vulnerable groups of people, children, then ensuring these resulting outcomes are especially important in our school buildings.

Image Source: World Green Building Council, Better Places for People – Research on Health, Well-being and Performance in Green Schools, Indoor Air Quality Briefing Note, 2017

Narrowing in on the need for healthy school buildings

According to the Schools for Health: Foundations for Student Success report by the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, students will spend more than 15,000 hours in a school building by the time they graduate high school. That’s more time in a school building than any other building other than their home. These school years are the critical developmental years for a child’s physiological, cognitive, emotional and social growth, which can be negatively impacted if exposed to poor IEQ conditions.

The Schools for Health report underwent a review of over 200 scientific studies that led to a forceful conclusion that student health, student thinking, and student performance are all impacted by environmental exposures in school buildings. With such a robust set of information all pointing in the same direction, it is clear that we can no longer delay prioritizing the health of our buildings, especially school buildings. The health and well-being of children should not be put at risk by sending them to school each day.

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), in particular, is an important element of a healthy indoor environment and plays a critical role in supporting a child’s learning. It is comprised of airborne particles, CO2, chemical odors and gases, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and microorganisms, and is affected by the fresh air that is drawn into a building. Poor IAQ in schools can result in decreased attention spans or have adverse health impacts like cough, headache, irritations, and in worse-case situations can even trigger asthma and respiratory issues. Because children’s bodies are still developing and they have higher respiratory rates than adults, they are more vulnerable and more susceptible to adverse health impacts brought on by unhealthy IAQ.

The US EPA notes what many studies have also concluded, which is that “Good IAQ contributes to a favorable environment for students, the performance of teachers and staff and a sense of comfort, health and well-being. These elements combine to assist a school in its core mission — educating children.”

In the UAE, Emirates Green Building Council (EmiratesGBC) has formed a Coalition for Green Schools to serve as a platform to promote healthy and efficient school buildings and work with school stakeholders to improve local learning environments. While the pool of case studies and data has grown globally, local and regional studies are still limited. 

Therefore, a first step in the Coalition’s work was its State of our Schools white paper, establishing a definition for green schools and setting the stage to identify the most pressing needs in UAE schools to support its vision that every child in the UAE learns in a green school within this generation.

With the support of stakeholder insight and input, the EmiratesGBC Coalition for Green Schools is now narrowing in on indoor air quality of UAE schools, an area where the potential for positive impact on student health and well-being is high.  

Through monitoring and measurement in school buildings across the UAE, local data that has been previously lacking can be used to support new regulations and administrative policies to improve IAQ in UAE schools…

…because every child deserves to learn in a green school!

This article was written by Lora Shrake, Director at Emirates Green Building Council.

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