A lesson for schoolchildren in the chemistry of bad air

Besides measuring the air quality outdoors, children are also asked to record the species of birds, insects and other animals on the school grounds.

ABU DHABI // They are abbreviations that, for most high school students, will remain confined to often painful memories of solving chemistry problems: SO2, O3, NO2, CO. For pupils at two Abu Dhabi schools, they took on a new relevance yesterday. Dozens of children from the Abu Dhabi Indian School and Al Nahda Boys School exchanged swapped their classrooms for the interior of a large white van where Tarek el Araby was explaining the workings of air quality monitoring equipment.

The abbreviations - which stand for sulphur dioxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide - are the most common air pollutants. He explained why they should be concerned if their levels are high. "High amounts of pollution can cause reduction in lung function," said Mr el Araby, an air quality expert with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, which does monitoring on behalf of the Environment AgencyAbu Dhabi (EAD).

Another pollutant on the watch list is particulate matter, tiny solids suspended in the air, which can cause heart and respiratory disease, he said. Ten stationary air quality monitoring units are set up around Abu Dhabi. The white van is one of two mobile units. It arrived on the Indian School grounds on Monday to take readings of the pollution in the area over 24 hours. The exercise is part of a Sustainable Schools Initiative launched by the EAD in September.

A total of 27 schools throughout the emirate are taking part of the programme. A main component is a "green" school audit, an evaluation that pupils and teachers have to make of their premises. The audit evaluates schools in five areas: air, water, waste, energy and land. Besides measuring the air quality outdoors, children are also asked to record the species of birds, insects and other animals on the school grounds.

Also under scrutiny are the types and amounts of pesticides and fertilisers used to maintain green areas. A big issue is water consumption. "We just found out from the water audit that 59,000 litres of water is used every day just for maintaining the school's green area," said Ziad Yassin, a science teacher at Al Nahda Boys School. "It is shocking to see how much resources we are actually consuming."

Bottled water is another problem since it produces plastic waste. "Drinking mineral water is a no-no and we will lose points for this," said Kala Krishnan, an English teacher and the Nature Club co-ordinator at the Abu Dhabi Indian School. While teachers are spearheading the effort, the actual work is done by the pupils. "I was doing the data work, calculating the amount of diesel used by the buses. It is huge," said Aysha Samrin, an 11th-grade student. "Truth is finally hitting us."

The schools are to submit their audits at the end of the month. Next year, they will be working on plans to improve their performance, said Gayatri Raghwa, an environmental education specialist at the EAD. But for Mrs Raghwa, the relevance of the audits goes beyond improving the physical conditions at the schools. "Abu Dhabi wants to be sustainable," she said. "We feel education is the vehicle to achieve sustainability."