Students learn better in greener schools - schools with improved indoor air quality, natural light and better materials that save taxpayer money because of lower building operating costs.

While budgetary limitations make it impossible for everyone to build new, greener schools, government purchasers can make it easier for all schools to buy greener products that help improve school operations and student performance.

Greener products and better student performance

Many products purchased for use in schools, including cleaning products, furniture, computer equipment and other electronics, have potentially adverse impacts on indoor air quality. These products release chemicals into the air that pollute school environments.

While product-related chemical emissions also affect adults, children's rapidly growing bodies are particularly susceptible to chemical exposure-related ailments. Their respiratory, immune and nervous systems are still developing and children breathe in a greater amount of air more rapidly than adults do. Because they have a faster metabolism, they also absorb and process these chemicals more rapidly. Finally, children - who are much shorter than adults - are naturally closer to the floor, where airborne molecules tend to suspend for extended periods of time; this increases the potential for chemical exposure, too. Given the same amount of chemical exposure, the physical burden on a child is far greater than the burden on an adult.

Among the most common chemical emissions are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs include known carcinogens, such as formaldehyde and benzene. Research has shown that children who are exposed to VOCs are up to four times more likely to develop asthma - the fastest-growing incurable, chronic childhood disease - compared to children who are not exposed. And, according to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America, asthma is responsible for more than 14 million missed school days each year.

Poor indoor air quality is also linked with other short- and long-term illnesses, such as headaches, dizziness and nausea.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), schools with better indoor air quality produce higher student test scores, improved academic performance and increased productivity. Children simply learn better in healthier environments.

Buying greener school products

Many products commonly used in schools can emit potentially toxic chemicals, including VOCs. Although paint, coatings, sealants and adhesives are the products most often associated with VOCs, there are hundreds of other common indoor products that also emit these compounds. Among them are furniture (like desks, tables and chairs), bookshelves, personal computers, flooring, cabinetry, drywall, insulation, doors, window treatments and cleaning/janitorial products.

Luckily for those concerned about student health, there are several product categories for which it is quite easy to specify safer, greener alternatives:

Paints. Specify paints meeting either the UL Environment (cross listed with EcoLogo CCD-048), Green Seal GS-11, or GREENGUARD Children and Schools standards. Both the UL Environment and Green Seal standards focus on multiple environmental issues, while the GREENGUARD standard focuses exclusively on protecting indoor air quality.

Cleaning Products. Specify cleaning products meeting either the UL Environment (cross listed with EcoLogo CCD-146 or CCD-147), Green Seal GS-37 or GS-40, or GREENGUARD Children and Schools standards. Both the UL Environment and Green Seal standards focus on multiple environmental issues, while the GREENGUARD standard focuses exclusively on protecting indoor air quality.

Computers and Office Electronics. Specify computers meeting the IEEE 1680 standard, preferably those that have been independently certified as meeting the standard. The IEEE 1680 standard for computers addresses indoor air quality, although as a point-based standard it is possible for products to score highly without fully addressing indoor air quality concerns. The GREENGUARD Children and Schools standard identifies products that meet strict indoor air quality concerns, including computers and other office electronic products. The UL Environment standard (cross listed with EcoLogo CCD-035) addresses multiple additional environmental criteria for office electronic products, including printers and copiers.

Furniture. For furniture, specify products certified as compliant with the ANSI/BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard at level 1 or higher. The ANSI/BIFMA standard addresses a variety of environmental issues, including indoor air quality. The GREENGUARD Children and Schools standard focuses exclusively on indoor air quality issues and, as a result, has more stringent human health requirements.

Measuring indoor air quality

Popular green building programs, such as the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) and LEED for Schools, highlight the importance of good indoor air quality. They require that building products meet certain chemical emissions requirements, but they are not as protective as some suggest is needed.

Many of the product emissions requirements are based on California's 01350 Specification (CA 01350), which aims to address indoor air quality performance of building materials.

According to Mark Rossolo, Director of Public Affairs for UL Environment and the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, “California 01350 is certainly a good start, but schools should take a more comprehensive look because out of tens of thousands of VOCs in commerce today, CA 01350 imposes emission limits on only 35 or so.”

There is also debate about how VOCs are measured and assessed for their health impacts. Many products labeled “low VOC” or “no VOC,” such as paints, have earned that distinction based solely on their VOC weight or content - a factor used to assess whether the product will react with sunlight to produce ground-level ozone - and not based their VOC emissions.

“This is problematic for two reasons,” says Rossolo. “First, not all VOCs react with sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, so ‘low VOC’ or ‘no VOC’ products can still off-gas potentially toxic chemicals into the indoor environment; and second, ground-level ozone is an outdoor environmental issue, not an indoor one.”

To identify products most protective of indoor air quality, Rossolo and others suggest looking for products that have been GREENGUARD certified. A list of GREENGUARD certified products is available on the GREENGUARD website at www.greenguard.org.

It's easy to buy green

Government purchasers have the ability to protect the health of the 53 million students and 5 million school staff members learning or working in U.S. schools. Human health and environmental standards make it easy to identify the healthier, greener products.

Scot Case has been researching and promoting responsible purchasing for 17 years. He is market development director for UL Environment. Contact him via e-mail at scot.case@ulenvironment.com or in Reading, PA, at 610-779-3770.