There's no question that IAQ can be quite subjective; certain people will always be more sensitive to odors and airborne contaminants than others. Indeed, there will even be individuals who complain about their indoor environments without any known toxins present in the air. That can make it difficult for engineers who are brought in to determine if an IAQ problem truly does exist.

Some of the elementary schools in Baltimore County (MD) were faced with such an issue in the mid-1990s: Students and faculty were becoming sick in one particular school, and in reality, severe problems were found. Then occupants in other schools in the district began complaining that their indoor environments were also poor and needed help yet, "smoking guns" were less obvious.

An assessment team was brought in to determine what, if any, IAQ problems existed in the schools and how best to address occupants' concerns. The industrial hygienists and engineers on the assessment team did find mechanical problems, but they also suggested a more proactive approach to IAQ. This resulted in a comprehensive program, which gave school personnel specific guidelines to follow in order to prevent future IAQ problems.

The initial problem

The original IAQ problems began in the Baltimore County Schools in 1994, when Deer Park Elementary School occupants started getting sick. People reported respiratory illnesses and associated problems, such as allergies. The assessment team determined that the problems stemmed from maintenance practices that were severely deficient. The lack of maintenance combined with leaky roofs resulted in huge colonies of mold, which infested the ductwork and the return air plenum ceiling.

"The ductwork accumulated mold because the insulation in the ductwork would get wet. Maintenance activities were nearly nonexistent. There weren't any standards for maintenance. There weren't spare parts. Equipment was old and out of date, and actually just very little of the building was working mechanically," said Ed Koplin, P.E., president, Jack Dale Associates, PC (JDA), Baltimore, a member of the original assessment team.

All these things conspired together to create an indoor environment that was literally teeming with mycotoxins, which are products offgassing from the mold and fungus. Over time, the occupants' immune systems started to break down, and that's when people started getting sick.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shut down the school, and all the students and faculty were relocated to other schools. Once the school was closed, an attempt was made to mitigate the problems, establish new ventilation systems, and upgrade the school.

Approximately $2.2 million was spent redesigning and rebuilding the mechanical systems of Deer Park Elementary School; however, the engineering firm hired to perform the work basically went AWOL in the middle of the project. Because of this, the mechanical upgrades were delayed until school officials finally installed some packaged units without the engineering firm's permission, simply to get the school open again.

That didn't go well. After only a few months of being open, the school once again shut down, because occupants said the indoor environment was worse than ever. "At this point we became engineers of record and came up with mitigating strategies to redesign the school's mechanical ventilation systems," said Koplin.

A validation program is born

Koplin's firm knew the history of the school and before it took liability for the design, especially in a facility that had already been evacuated twice, it wanted some assurances that the new systems would be maintained.

"We wanted a way to survey the school on a routine basis and validate that the school was being operated in a manner consistent with indoor air quality guidelines. It was important to everyone that the maintenance department was willing to support new systems with training and spare parts and expedite repairs and adjustments," said Koplin.

Even more importantly, JDA wanted to know that a complaint resolution program would be put in place, so if somebody did think there was an IAQ problem, there was a specific protocol for addressing it.

The county was convinced it needed that kind of comprehensive help for all its schools, so it asked JDA to develop the "Healthy Building Maintenance and Validation Program (HBMVP)," which Koplin believes is the first of its kind in the country. The program established how IAQ complaint resolutions would take place, as well as the proactive steps each school would need to take to head off IAQ problems. The program was site-based, bottom-driven, and top-supported; in other words, the program was funded centrally but implemented locally at each school.

Baltimore County School's assistant superintendent, Stephen Jones, Ph.D.; the Director of Environmental Protection, George Perdikakis; and JDA collaborated to:

  • Develop a program to diagnose the problems;

  • Develop design documents and specifications to mitigate the problems;

  • Develop a maintenance protocol that was appropriate for the specific mechanical and control systems used in the design;

  • Provide an IAQ maintenance protocol that encompassed maintenance, administration, complaint resolution; and

  • Ongoing validation services by JDA to ensure that the HBMVP was supported in a compliant manner.

Following the flow chart Central to the program was a flow chart, which identified the three responsible parties that needed to be involved in order to resolve an IAQ complaint. The first is an IAQ coordinator (typically the school nurse), the second is an operations representative (maintenance person), and the third is the objector.

"Previously what would happen is the complainant would express concerns and then the industrial hygienists were showing up trying to resolve them. In the complaint resolution process, we didn't see the need for these professionals to be involved, at least in the early stages," said Koplin.

The program provided a specific form that needed to be filled by anyone complaining about an IAQ problem in the schools. Once the form was filled out, a carefully scripted face-to-face interview with the school nurse, or a member of the school's administrative staff took place. The interview questions were devised to be open-ended so as not to lead the objector to think there might be a bigger problem that they didn't know about. The nurse would look at spatial patterns and timing patterns, among other issues, then give the objector a diary. The objector was asked to jot down a note any time he or she felt uncomfortable.

Koplin said they worked hard to ensure they weren't burdening the nurses or other administrative personnel with paperwork. The nurses already had a checklist in place that they used whenever a student came to them, but the checklist merely asked whether the student was ill or injured, and there was no other differentiation.

"We developed a small checklist that would be adapted to the nurse's existing checklist that would identify respiratory, or other IAQ-related symptoms. The list was developed with the cooperation of the school system health officer. If it was illness, and not an injury, that prompted the visit to the school nurse, was it coughing, sneezing, itchy skin, or items that could be related to indoor air quality?" noted Koplin.

During a quarterly validation visit, the nurse would be interviewed and the checklist database reviewed. JDA was looking for records that indicated a problem that seemed to be unrelated to weather, temperature, allergy season, flu season, etc. In other words, the firm sought a problem that was accelerating in the school, irrespective of the local conditions.

Having the local nurse be involved in the process was especially helpful because she could act as a sort of epidemiologist. For example, she would soon become aware if seasonal pollens became a problem, and she would be able to differentiate that problem from an actual IAQ problem. She could also see if occupants were becoming sick in certain parts of the school, while others remained healthy.

Figure 2. Schools that participate in the Healthy Building Maintenance and Validation Program receive a validation scorecard like this one from Deer Park Elementary School, Baltimore, from the 1998 school year.

Checking it twice

If the nurse saw an IAQ problem developing, she could initiate activity consistent with the complaint resolution checklist. There would be an in-house review before the operations/maintenance person was involved. Some examples that didn't require a maintenance person included moving an allergic student away from a classmate who owned a cat. Another complaint was resolved when a school secretary learned that she couldn't wear contacts during dry, cold weather.

The exciting realization for Baltimore County Public Schools was that the complaints were resolved at the school level, without professional involvement. In addition, the PTA entered the data into the HBMVP database so that the records could be developed without increasing administration costs at the schools, and it helped to keep the maintenance staff accountable.

If the complaint continued to develop, the maintenance staff would be brought in for an interview. Again, the HBMVP questions were scripted. For example, were the air filters just changed? If so, were the filters changed while occupants were in the room? Has anybody done any maintenance or repairs that could possibly cause fumes to develop in a particular part of the school? Is there a trash delivery service that is now coming in at a different time of day that's allowing fumes or odors to come into the ventilation system?

For its part, the maintenance department had its own routine to follow and it became accountable for all maintenance procedures that needed to be done. To help personnel accomplish this task, JDA engineers wrote detailed maintenance manuals for each of the six schools that were involved in the HBMV pilot program.

These were not generic "how do you maintain an air handler" handbooks, noted Koplin. "Instead, they were specific to the air handlers in each school and the options that each air handler had and how it had to be cared for from the mechanical engineer's viewpoint and also the manufacturer's viewpoint."

Weekly, monthly, quarterly, semiannual, and annual checklists were developed for all the equipment, and maintenance people were expected to turn in these checklists to the PTA for review. JDA developed database management software, and volunteer PTA members were assigned to enter the data from the check-lists into the program.

Engineers came in on a quarterly basis to gather the statistical information in the database and spot check to validate the program. "We'd bring the data back to our office, then develop a summary report. The summary 'report card' for each school was written for the layman, so we used a color code to demonstrate compliance," said Koplin.

Green meant that maintenance personnel were complying with the program requirements, while blue meant they were exceeding program requirements. Yellow meant there were some issues that needed to be resolved, and red meant the school was at immediate risk of another IAQ situation. These report cards were posted quarterly, so that parents and staff could see that all of the school's stakeholders, including administration, occupants, maintenance personnel, and custodial staff in their school were complying with the program.

Koplin says one of the biggest benefits of the program is that the maintenance people began to feel like professionals. "It became a very proactive environment. They were fixing things that needed to be fixed, and when they submitted a repair order the parts better be provided by operations, because if the component was still broken the next time we came through, we'd pick it up on validation and the department would get a 'red' in that category of the report card. Nobody wanted a red, so the program practically managed itself," he said.

Another benefit is that the maintenance people received training, so they understood how the buildings worked. Instead of just knowing they had to change filters, they learned how the filters affected everything within the building. Maintenance staff began to offer suggestions to improve their checklists as they found items that required maintenance missing from the checklists.

The end result

Koplin is extremely pleased with how the program evolved, because it gave nontechnical stakeholders within the school environment an opportunity to develop their own hypotheses and test them, without any professionals being involved.

"We didn't have to get a certified industrial hygienist involved, and we didn't have to get a mechanical engineer involved. All we had were people in the schools making reasonable assumptions, developing hypotheses, and then testing them in their own environment," noted Koplin.

Although the program was phased out approximately two years ago, Koplin is very optimistic, because "in almost every case during the five years that we had this program in the school system, the complaints resolved themselves. People began to realize what the problems were and how to resolve them at a school-based level."

In addition, it gave JDA an opportunity to do a lot of research and develop a program that's never been developed before. "It was very synergistic in a lot of respects, and we enjoyed doing it," said Koplin. ES

Some images associated with this article do not transfer to the Internet. Please refer to the print version of this month's ES.

For more information on the program, contact Ed Koplin at Jack Dale Associates, PC (JDA) at 410-665-9400 (phone) or Ed Koplin (e-mail). Browse JDA's webpage at