Do you remember your first college Parents Weekend, when as a freshman you welcomed mom and dad into your room? Did you have to hastily transform your room into an “acceptable” living space just prior to this reunion?

Off our kids go to college, perhaps moving out from under the watchful eyes of parents for the first time. While this transition to adulthood is ultimately strengthening in many ways, students are at a higher risk for health problems when they live in a college dormitory. Optimal indoor air management can mitigate a percentage of these health care risks. Therefore, college and university facility managers have not only the usual challenges of balancing IAQ with energy conservation and HVAC system costs, but perhaps unbeknownst to them, they also acquire some of the previous parental responsibilities for keeping students healthy and able to learn.

Student health during the college years

College students can be especially vulnerable to indoor air toxicity for several reasons. They may have temporarily weakened immune systems from a demanding schedule and are exposed to a multitude of pathogens in a confined space (the dorm). They may alter the building in ways that disable safety alarms or create other hazards.

They also leave behind microbiological and structural footprints that can impact the next group of students occupying the spaces.

Demanding classes and intense athletic schedules can cause sleep deprivation, seriously taxing a student’s immune system. New experimental behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or increased intimate contact with others increases a student’s exposure to viral and bacterial pathogens. Contact with cigarette smoke, whether inhaled directly or through second-hand exposure, inflames throat and bronchial membranes making it easier for pathogens to penetrate deeper into the respiratory tract to cause infections or reactive airways disease. This combination of decreased immune defenses and increased exposure to airborne microorganisms and toxins make college students more vulnerable to infections.

DIY Ventilation Systems

Not only are college students more vulnerable to infections and allergies because of overworked immune systems and increased exposure to microorganisms, but they often try to self-manage their room IAQ and inadvertently create additional respiratory dangers.

If a creative student wants extra privacy for a banned activity such as indoor smoking, they may custom build a ventilation system in their room that shunts air directly out their window, thereby avoiding human nostrils and smoke detectors in the hallway. Alternatively or in addition, students may try to improve their room IAQ by using humidifiers to combat dry forced air systems or ozone air cleaners for do-it-yourself indoor air deodorization. These air treatment systems can disseminate microorganisms and toxins if not cleaned and used properly.

The Microorganisms in the building

A person typically sheds approximately 37 million bacteria every hour into the surrounding air or onto surfaces touched. This has been documented in hospitals and non-healthcare buildings by researchers at the University of Oregon’s Biology and the Built Environment Center, the University of Chicago Microbiome Project, and other researchers.

 The University of Oregon microbiologist Jessica Green has documented that a building acquires a unique ecology of microorganisms determined by how it is built and operated, and by who uses it and what they do in the building. Dr. Jack Gilbert at the University of Chicago says that within hours of the arrival of a new occupant to a room, his or her microbes spread throughout the room and mix with microbes already present, making the microscopic ecology of each room unique.