UAE students at risk from poorly maintained air-conditioning at schools

A study found that prolonged exposure to poor indoor air could lead to physiological health symptoms for sensitive individuals.

Dr Mehdi Nazarinia, assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Heriot Watt University-Dubai, said indoor air quality is often overlooked and should be more enforced. Anna Nielsen for The National
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ABU DHABI // Inefficient and poorly maintained air-conditioning systems in schools is damaging the health of pupils and teachers, a study has revealed.

As temperatures rise and everyone retreats indoors to air conditioned classrooms many are suffering from headaches, tiredness, coughs and sneezes because of contaminants circulated in the air, said Nazanin Behzadi, who carried out the study of the indoor air quality at four elementary schools in Dubai.

Ms Behzadi, who presented her findings to the British University in Dubai, said that “poor quality indoor air can cause short or long-term health problems for pupils and teachers.

It is not just AC in schools that is causing illness. The study found that prolonged exposure to poor indoor air – whether it be in the classroom or at home – could lead to physiological health symptoms for individuals.

Experts have blamed a focus on outdoor rather than indoor air quality for exacerbating the issue, despite residents spending most of their time indoors, particularly during summer.

“Indoor air quality is what often is forgotten and not enforced as it should by government and local regulations,” said Dr Mehdi Nazarinia, assistant professor in Mechanical Engineering at Heriot Watt University-Dubai.

This posed a problem as poor indoor air conditions, such as high levels of CO2 and other pollutants, could affect a “student’s academic performance and decreases staff’s working ability in office rooms”, said Dr Nazarinia.

“Sometimes we forget that in a region like the UAE people are spending more than 80 per cent of their life indoors. Knowledge of indoor air quality has to be made aware to people in homes, schools and offices.”

AC systems should supply fresh air, provide proper filtrations and distribute the cool air comfortably into the space, explained Matthias Kasprowicz, managing director of air con specialists Trox Middle East.

“A major issue with indoor air quality is wrong design and engineering. When there is a lack of fresh air supply and used air is just circulated and not filtered sufficiently, germs, bacteria, mould and dust are just redistributed in the room and, added up continuously, this is a major cause of respiratory diseases and allergies,” said Mr Kasprowicz.

“Our experience shows that by far the majority of buildings in Middle East have very low air quality and comfort, and still this topic does not reach the people enough.”

Dr Mohamed Rafique, a pulmonologist at Prime Hospital Dubai, said poorly maintained AC could aggravate people’s asthma and allergies.

“People don’t get annual maintenance for their air conditioners. This can trigger asthma and other respiratory problems,” he said. “The number of infections can also go up. We find children and people falling ill. Proper annual maintenance and changing filters is important and can keep sickness at bay.”

However, Dr Julio Gomez-Seco, a consultant in respiratory medicine at NMC Healthcare in Dubai, said AC was not solely to blame for people falling sick, especially during summer.

He said the extreme changes in outdoor and indoor temperatures played a part. “Going from 45°C outside to 20°C inside affects a person and they can catch a cold easily. The respiratory system can be affected.”