WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education heard a presentation about the carbon dioxide levels in the district’s schools at its Jan. 28 meeting, when a consultant updated board members and the public about the air quality at West Orange High School. The rest of the schools were also tested, and it was found that none had dangerous carbon dioxide levels. John Smoyer, of AHERA Consultants described at the meeting the system used to measure the levels.
The standard level of carbon dioxide that should be in a public space is 1,000 parts per million. Smoyer said that while there were classrooms in the district that had levels higher than that, they were not high enough to cause concern. High carbon dioxide levels can cause drowsiness, headaches and lethargy.
Elevated levels of carbon dioxide are caused by crowded rooms without enough air circulation. Humans and other animals create carbon dioxide as they breathe; it is the waste product of various metabolic and biochemical processes, such as cellular respiration. Because humans breathe carbon dioxide in and breathe a greater amount out, a lack of proper circulation can cause a buildup of carbon dioxide in an area. This buildup occurs more often in older buildings that were not designed with modern, sophisticated heating and air conditioning systems.
“It’s harmful when its concentration is high enough to displace the oxygen in the air,” Smoyer said at the meeting, explaining that the levels found in the West Orange schools were not toxic. “In none of the testing that we’ve done did we achieve anything close to 3,000. The upper limit was around 2,400 in one of the tests.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, light symptoms can begin to appear at levels higher than 1,500 ppm, though that level is not toxic. When carbon dioxide reaches levels of 3,000 ppm or higher, more severe symptoms can begin to appear. At approximately 5,000 ppm the air begins to become toxic.
Smoyer touched on the reasons carbon dioxide levels were found to be higher in some classrooms at WOHS and in three classrooms at Hazel Elementary School. Several rooms had vents obstructed by plywood due to their age and ineffectiveness, and others had classroom materials stacked on top of the heating system.
“Simply removing this may alleviate the high CO2 levels that were found in those spaces,” Smoyer said. “Ventilation is the key to solving or reducing concentrations. Introducing fresh air by opening windows and interior doors can dilute concentration, thus decreasing CO2 levels within that space. It’s important to maintain balance between room temperature, comfort and the outdoor air that may be introduced with this method.”
Smoyer said one concern that often comes up when testing school buildings is that open classroom windows could make students sick.
“Contrary to popular belief, colds are not actually caused by cold,” he said. “The introduction of fresh air into a space dilutes concentration because the dumping effect happens when you overpopulate a space. If there are too many people within that space there is no proper balance.”
Smoyer also said that air conditioning would not solve the problem, because it just cools the air within the space rather than introduces fresh air.
“If there are students who are asthmatic or have any other respiratory issues, how does that affect them?” BOE Vice President Sandra Mordecai asked at the meeting.
Smoyer said that there is no direct correlation between respiratory problems and elevated levels of carbon dioxide, so there would not have to be any special accommodations made for those students.
BOE President Ken Alper asked how many windows should be open to regulate fresh air and how long they should be open.
“You only need to introduce a small amount of air,” Smoyer said. “Sometimes just opening the door to the hallway will do it, and general movement in the room might be enough to do it. Usually we advise schools to crack one window an inch or so for about 15 minutes every period of the day.”
WOHS junior Jasper Hilliard said at the meeting that he has classes in about half of the rooms that had elevated levels of carbon dioxide.
“It’s a good thing the board took the initiative and got the tests done, but this problem is not new,” Hilliard said, mentioning that the BOE has discussed the problem at other times in the last year. “What will you do differently to solve the problem?”
Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez said the district has already researched the cost to repair the vents in the classrooms that need them, and that those repairs should be made within the next few weeks. Cost projections for replacing HVAC systems will be presented as a part of the 2019-2020 budget.
“We’re doing walkthroughs of all of the buildings, and all instructional materials will be removed from the vents,” de Mendez said, explaining that in some classrooms school materials are blocking vents. “Sometimes vents are turned off and we will make sure they are turned on.”
Five HVAC systems have already been repaired at WOHS and de Mendez said that, in addition to the report from the consultants, principals and teachers will be provided with guidelines and best practices for how to regulate air in their classrooms.
That answer was in response to parent Jennifer Beazer, who said at the meeting that school officials should have a system for regulating fresh air in their buildings.
“I want to be sure that principals and teachers in those buildings and those classrooms will have some kind of instruction of what to look out for and what to do to keep fresh air flowing in,” Beazer said. “Students should feel free if they’re having a headache or are feeling dizzy, they should know to speak up and ask for fresh air.”
Resident Jeremias Salinas said that opening windows could create a security risk and the district should consider what else it can do to regulate carbon dioxide levels.
“Especially at our elementary schools, many of which are one-level buildings,” Salinas said. “If you open the first-floor window, that creates a security concern, which is something we haven’t really discussed.”
He also added that when weather is bad, opening a window might not be an option. De Mendez said that security concerns are being addressed in the walkthroughs.
“We’re doing walkthroughs partly because of that,” she said. “We can’t use the option of opening doors because it’s a security risk, so it has to be the cracking of the window. We will provide our teachers with very specific guidance as to what can and cannot be done.”