DUBAI // Dangerously poor-quality air in school classrooms is exposing children to the risk of health problems including respiratory illness, a study has found.
The study compared air quality in four government schools to standards set by the municipality and international guidelines, and found readings well above the recommended maximum.
It analysed the air for organic compounds, particulate matter (tiny particles of soot) and ozone. At high levels, all three can trigger conditions such as asthma. They can also cause "sick building syndrome", leading to symptoms such as nausea or dizziness that last only while sufferers are in the building and are rarely traceable to one source.
"We are exposing our children to a lot of problems and they are so vulnerable," said Dr Moshood Fadeyi, the author of the study, which is about to be published in the International Journal of Architectural Engineering and Design Management.
"When we talk about elementary schoolchildren, they are even more vulnerable as their lungs are still developing."
Dr Fadeyi, who works at the British University in Dubai, measured total particulate matter in the classroom air and found dangerously high levels.
Guidelines recommend a maximum of 15 milligrams per metre cubed; he found between 200mg and 250mg. "That in itself is very dangerous," he said. "Some particles can settle in the nose or throat and others can penetrate further down into the system. It can cause respiratory illness, asthma and skin irritation."
Dr Fadeyi also found the level of volatile organic compounds including paints, building materials and cleaning products, which should be a maximum of 250mg per metre cubed, were more than 1,000mg in some schools.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency lists eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders and memory impairment among the immediate symptoms some people experience after exposure to some organics.
Dr Fadeyi found carbon-dioxide levels at 1,500 parts per million and above, well above the 1,000 maximum. The schools met the guidelines for ozone and carbon monoxide.
"When I came to this country I realised people weren't talking about this," he said. "We talk a lot about energy, water, outdoor air quality - all of which are important - but not about indoor air quality.
"When we look at schools, we're always looking at academic performance but we don't think about the environment they're working in.
"Increasing attendance and performance is related to that … we need to create awareness, knowing the kind of environment we're exposing our children to."
Dr Shereen Habib, a general practitioner in Dubai, said allergies were prevalent in the UAE, partly because of the climate.
"Recent months have been worse with the dust storms, especially as air-conditioning units may not be properly fitted, serviced or maintained so indoors is no longer a haven," Dr Habib said.
She said air-conditioning systems harboured hazards such as fungal spores, which could cause medical problems including atypical pneumonias that did not respond to conventional antibiotics.
"Air-conditioning systems are also at risk of spreading legionella, a bacteria that causes legionnaire's disease, which in turn can cause serious health problems," Dr Habib said.
"If they are left off for long periods, for example in the winter months, they must be serviced and properly cleaned before use as the warm, damp environment promotes growth of pathogens."
Sarah Perry, the academic programme co-ordinator at the Ministry of Education, said schools were aware of the issue.
But Ms Perry said it was not given the same priority as in the US, where inspectors checked air quality twice a year.
"I know at schools like Al Saadah and others, they have asthma and they worry about the fans, the old air conditioning, the filters and how often they're changed," she said. "They put [the air-conditioning systems] in, so they should check them."
Jaffar Fardan, the headmaster of Al Saeediya School in Karama, a government school for boys between 13 and 16, said classroom air quality was not the priority it should be, and his classrooms would "not satisfy air-quality measures".
The school, built in 1978, relies on window units for air conditioning, not a central system. "This is not good for teaching or learning," he said. "They are noisy and old, and not inspected. We need to do better on this issue, especially given the dusty climate we live in.
"I don't see anywhere being checked for air quality like it should be, though."
The problem is not confined to government schools. Fatima Belrahaif, head of the Dubai School Inspection Bureau, said air-conditioning systems were included in its routine assessments.
"In private schools inspectors will review the facilities and will comment about poor air conditioning if it affects the quality of students' learning experience," Ms Belrahaif said.
Maha Khouzamy, head of Al Awladonah, a private special-needs school in Sharjah, said she believed the issue needed to be addressed. Her school's air-conditioning units were cleaned two or three times a year.
"Especially for us with our Down's syndrome kids, we have to be very careful as they pick up microbes very easily," she said.
But Ms Khouzamy said few parents were aware of the risks. "It's something that should be talked about."