Indoor air needs a diligent monitor

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As The National reported yesterday, a new study has found that poor-quality air in classrooms is exposing students to several health problems including respiratory illness. Four government schools were tested and air quality was found to be short of the acceptable standards set by the municipality and international guidelines.

The issue is of greater concern because it is not new. In a region where windows stay closed for months on end and even many bus shelters are air-conditioned, indoor air quality is a persistent concern. In March of 2009, for example, the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (Ead) announced a plan to fund research to study air quality in 600 homes across the UAE. The idea was to search for sources of illnesses and allergies, including the so-called sick building syndrome (SBS) which can lead to feelings of nausea or dizziness.

Significant funds were invested then to address the risk. But this is a battle that must be fought repeatedly, building by building, and not only in schools but in all structures, public and private.

"We talk a lot about energy, water, outdoor air quality - all of which are important - but not about indoor air quality," said Dr Moshood Fadeyi, the author of the study, which is set to be published in the International Journal of Architectural Engineering and Design Management.

The extent of pollution found in the classrooms studied is disturbing: the level of volatile compounds such as paints, building materials and cleaning products was four-times the acceptable standard, while carbon dioxide levels were at 1,500 parts per million, well above the 1,000 ppm maximum. For children who suffer from asthma and other diseases, these are dangerous findings.

But those same children, and all of us, also breathe in malls, government and commercial offices, and homes.

This week Ead set out its top priorities: monitoring the quality of the air and of seawater, and the health of land ecosystems. All of these priorities, and others, have a legitimate claim on official and public attention, but indoor air quality is a daily issue for the whole society.

Well-designed testing, attentive monitoring and prompt efforts to remedy problems as they are detected will all be necessary if we are to breathe easy this summer, and in future.