If we want our children to do well at school we need them to be able to breathe properly, don’t we? But that’s not the case for many students in Australia. If carbon dioxide is high, expect fatigue, concentration loss, and poor learning.

A lack of ventilation is putting the cognitive ability and health of students in Australian classrooms at risk, according to a new study from the University of New South Wales.

All Australia states and territories address classroom air quality in their building standards but they tend to rely on natural and manual ventilation.

While opening windows is a cheap and efficient ventilation method, the study from the School of Built Environment found that it isn’t always practical or comfortable to keep windows open due to weather extremes and noise from people, traffic and construction.

Manual ventilation also burdens time-poor teachers with the task of monitoring air quality.

One solution flagged by the researchers is installing demand-controlled ventilation systems, which use sensors that detect contaminates in the air and control ventilation accordingly.

According to lead author on the study, associate lecturer Dr Shamila Haddad, teaming demand controlled ventilation with air extraction removes excessive heat and stale air and filters fresh cool air into the classroom.

“It utilises both natural and mechanical ventilation systems and provides an effective opportunity for controlling indoor air quality in school buildings by adjusting airflow rates based on indoor air quality measures such as CO2, Total Volatile Organic Compound and thermal comfort parameters.”

She said these responsive ventilation systems are more efficient and cheaper to run than conventional ventilation systems that keep ventilation rates constant.

Why it’s so bad for students

Dr Haddad said that many students are breathing poor quality air that is “significantly higher” than the 850-ppm threshold concentrations prescribed by the National Construction Code.

Former research from the university has found CO2 levels of up to 4000ppm in classrooms.

The lack of ventilation in many Australian classrooms is also exposing students to higher levels of harmful contaminates from new furniture or other sources of toxic gases. 

Dr Haddad said that poor indoor air quality can heighten the transmission risk of airborne disease such as Covid and can also produce lifelong issues such as respiratory infections and upper and lower airways disorders.

High quantities of carbon dioxide also lead to fatigue, concentration loss, and poor learning performance.

Dr Haddad pointed out that indoor air quality in classrooms is very serious given the amount of time students spend in the classroom.

The legacy of poor air quality and energy efficiency in schools

Schools have a history of poor performance on air quality, thermal comfort and energy efficiency despite the existence of many states and territories programs aimed at improving the comfort and energy performance of schools.

The Fifth Estate understand that these programs often fail because they don’t take a holistic approach to comfort and energy retrofits and instead provide capital for a standard air-conditioning unit that guzzles significantly more energy than a typical rooftop solar system can support. These inexpensive AC units also don’t do much to help ventilate classrooms either.