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Backpack Sniffer
August 03, 1999

The Air that We Breathe

At Deer Park Elementary School, just outside Baltimore, some fifth grade students are wearing backpacks all the time - in their classrooms, in the hallways, even in the cafeteria. What’s going on here? These students are participating in a unique experiment - they’re testing the air quality inside their school building. The backpacks hold personal air quality monitors, complete with sensors that can measure minute quantities of potentially hazardous chemicals and particles. Tim Buckley, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, explains the use of these pint-size scientists in indoor air testing. "There aren’t standards for the indoor environment. That’s a real gap for understanding what’s healthy and not healthy in an indoor environment. We were lucky to have the permission to go into Deer Park and make some measurements in a healthy school, which provides us with a baseline."

There’s Something in the Air

The Environmental Protection Agency states that "indoor levels of pollutants may be 2-5 times, and occasionally more than 100 times, higher than outdoor levels." Indoor air quality is of vital concern in our ever-growing indoor environment. Johns Hopkins student Lisa Carlson echoes the sentiments of many researchers: "We do need to collect more information. Indoor air quality is such a major issue, not just in schools, but everywhere, because we spend so much time indoors." Deer Park was an ideal location to initiate a study of air quality, since the facility had recently undergone an extensive remodeling to alleviate "sick building syndrome." This condition is a result of the buildup of pollutants like formaldehyde from carpets and paints, to construction materials, which often have preservatives to prevent mold and mildew particulates, such as dusty vents.

How Clean Is Clean?

Public health experts are anxious to determine the baselines for healthy indoor air. Dr. Clifford Mitchell from Johns Hopkins states: "What does the air inside a clean school look like? One of the things we don’t know is what is the typical environment in schools where there aren’t problems, where maintenance is done properly. Basically, you’ve got the routine stuff that happens in a school every day, and we don’t know the answer to that in most cases." Mitchell contends that the best way to measure air quality is to measure the "personal breathing zone." As people walk, their movements stir up particulates, chemical compounds, and aerosols, any of which could be harmful to our health. "As kids are walking around going through the day, theyÕre doing things that generate ’stuff’’," Mitchell says. The researchers developed a backpack to measure air very close to a person while they went throught their normal activities. "I scrounged up whatever I could," says Christopher Beck of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

"I placed this pump inside the backpack. We take a filter, place it inside here, seal this thing up - we open this up, put a glass charcoal filter in here. . ." and when he was done, he had a portable sensor for the kids to wear. The students were also told to write down their activities, including what rooms they entered during the day.

Air Kids

How do the students at Deer Park feel about being part of the air study? Student Jerome Pickens says, "It’s like you’re keeping track of your life in a notebook. We were trying to see how our school air was; it’s like, is it clean or is it dirty air?" Nakietha Peoples got a charge out of her backpack. "It felt like it was vibrating on your back because the air was going in these little clips." The young scientist adds, "It’s always good to know what you’re breathing." Angelica Ackwood: "It’s fun, you really don’t feel it’s on your back cause it’s just like wearing a backpack around school with nothing in it." Kate Wolf: "It takes a leap for a school to open itself up like this. Its so meaningful - absolutely, it’s cool."

More Information

US Environmental Protection Agency
1-800-438-4318 Indoor Air Quality Information Line
EPA Indoor Air Quality Guidelines
Climate Resources Page

Schools can order a free copy of the IAQ Tools for Schools Kit by having their administrator mail or fax a request on school letterhead to:

PO Box 37133
Washington, DC 20013-7133
FAX: (703) 356-5386

by Debra Utacia Krol

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