Poor indoor environments at school


Children are exposed to poor indoor environments in schools in many countries in the WHO European Region, with issues including stuffy air, dampness and mould, uncomfortable temperatures and poorly functioning toilets. This not only causes ill health and absenteeism but also reduces children's academic performance and well-being.

A new WHO report, School environment: policies and current status, presents the results of a recent WHO survey on policies to improve environmental and health conditions in European schools and kindergartens. It also draws on other international and national surveys in schools. The report's findings will contribute to discussions at the mid-term review of the European Environment and Health Process in Haifa, Israel, on 28–30 April 2015. 

"Our children spend most of their daily lives in school and kindergarten, and we expect them to enjoy the best environmental conditions, promoting health and education. Our analysis shows substantial environmental problems in schools, however, which are largely overlooked. We hope that decision-makers take stock of the evidence and make sure that existing norms and regulations are implemented," says Dr Marco Martuzzi, Programme Manager, Environmental Health Intelligence and Forecasting at WHO/Europe. 

"Schools must be clean, safe and comfortable – they need adequate lighting, air temperature and relative humidity; adequately ventilated classrooms; and functioning toilets that pupils would not hesitate to use. This not only reduces pupils' exposure to toxic substances and prevents diseases, it also enables efficient cognitive development, offering equal educational opportunities for all pupils," adds Dr Martuzzi.

Report methodology

The report summarizes findings from a WHO survey on policies to prevent exposure to chemical air pollutants, mould and physical factors; improve access to sanitation and hygiene practices in schools and kindergartens; and promote walking and cycling to schools.

It also presents a summary of results from recent international and national surveys in schools that assessed levels of chemical pollutants in classrooms, ventilation and air stuffiness, mould and dampness, sanitation, smoking in schools and modes of transport to schools. 

Building on the largest and most recent surveys available, the report provides a snapshot of conditions in different parts of the Region.

Indoor air quality 

Policies to improve indoor air quality in schools and kindergartens exist in most countries, especially high-income countries, and include standards on ventilation. Poor ventilation and stuffy air in classrooms is a common problem in some countries during the cold season, however, with negative effects on respiratory health, absenteeism, academic performance and the well-being of pupils. 

Exposure to mould and dampness is also common in some countries; the adverse effects of such exposure on respiratory health are well established. Targeted interventions to address this should focus on problematic schools.

Access to adequate sanitation facilities and hygiene practices

Most countries have comprehensive policies to improve sanitation and hygiene in schools and kindergartens. In low- and middle-income countries policies tend to be even more comprehensive than in high-income countries, with the exception of policies on privacy in toilets.

Improving sanitation and hygiene in schools remains a challenge in countries with limited resources. Poor infrastructure and inadequate maintenance of facilities are reasons behind pupils' low satisfaction with toilets and hygiene facilities and their scarce use of them.

Essential actions to address these problems include improving inspections, enforcing compliance with existing standards and taking into account pupils' perceptions and needs.