In the West, summers have become long and hot. What we used to call wildfire season has now become a year round phenomenon. Even though the children are back to school, we still see forest fires affecting our Colorado communities.
I have lived and worked in Colorado for many years. In my role as the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Acting Regional Administrator for Region 8, I know all too well the health effects of smokier skies. We know that cases of forest fire smoke, often combined with extreme heat, will only increase in the years to come due to climate change.
We also understand that most of us spend around 90% of our time indoors, and poor outdoor air conditions can make poor indoor air quality worse. Combined with the current challenge of COVID-19, providing safe airspace for children to learn, play and come together is more important than ever.
We know the effects of poor air quality on our body: itchy eyes, sore throat, wheezing and coughing; and in children, an increase in childhood respiratory illnesses, including asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia.
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Children are often more vulnerable to pollutants than adults, and children’s exposure can cause irreversible damage during important periods of growth and development. Smoky days can lead to wasted school days.
As I reflect on the responsibility we at EPA have to the public and that we as members of the community have to each other, I take inspiration from the work of our partners here in Colorado.
One example is Colorado Springs School District 11’s commitment to ensuring the highest possible indoor air quality in its schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. In 2020, the district assessed its 4 million square foot facility inventory to identify and repair all heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems.
District 11 is spending $ 32.68 million in federal and state grants for projects such as the complete HVAC system retrofits at Columbia and Bristol Elementary Schools, as well as Michell and Palmer High Schools. These upgrades will improve filtration, ventilation and temperature controls.
Properly maintained HVAC systems provide cleaner air in classrooms, cafeterias and auditoriums where children spend their days. Historically, District 11 replaced HVAC air filters twice a year; now the staff replace the air filters three times a year. These more frequent renovations and replacements of air filters demonstrate an active commitment to maintaining good indoor air quality for all students and staff.
Plus, increased ventilation and HVAC filter changes can help reduce airborne contaminants, including viruses, when used properly in a building. EPA commends District 11 for the hard work and willingness to share their approaches with other districts and government agencies.
I am also inspired by the work we and our partners do together. Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, the EPA developed a new series of healthy indoor environments in schools webinar series featuring best ventilation and cleaning practices, intended to help school staff address concerns in their careers. facilities. The latest episode on Asthma Friendly Schools is now available as an on-demand webinar.
Likewise, we are working in partnership with the United States Department of Energy and the United States Department of Education on a campaign for efficient and healthy schools to engage K-12 schools, especially those serving low-income student populations. , on ways to reduce energy costs and improve both energy performance and indoor air quality. The campaign will help identify practical HVAC solutions and upgrades that improve energy efficiency and create healthier spaces for teaching and learning.
Healthy indoor air in schools depends on all of us working together, and there are ways to help. If you are a parent or school staff member, get involved and let your school and district know that healthy indoor air is important to you.
Administrators and community members, such as those in Colorado Springs District 11, can help dramatically improve indoor air quality through deliberate coordination and planning. If you are a school leader, represent an organization that supports schools, or are interested in participating in the Healthy and Effective Schools campaign, we invite you to register as a participant or supporter. For those
interested in learning more about protecting and maintaining healthy indoor environments, visit our website.
Debra H. Thomas, of Denver, is the interim regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 8.
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