Is indoor air quality good enough in grade schools, colleges, and universities in Canada?

With cold air on its way later than usual, virus spread has been delayed somewhat, but not so much in the way of seasonal allergies, related to indoor air quality. Although poor indoor air quality can cause serious health problems at any time of year, it is particularly problematic in colder weather when our immune systems start to become weaker and are more susceptible to viruses (COVID-19 and other viruses) and particulate matter. Indoor air quality (IAQ) can be quite poor in many schools in Canada. This is the start of the third school year when we are dealing with COVID-19 and its many variants, and schools are still not equipped to properly deal with the many threats to indoor air quality. In this article, we will discuss the problems and solutions related to IAQ in Canadian schools. 

A school in a Canadian city with a bus in front of it. It is a large building with a lot of windows. The text asks the question, How is the indoor air quality in your school?

How is indoor air quality tested in schools?

Indoor air quality is tested using sensors for various volatile organic compounds (VOCs), CO2, carbon monoxide, ozone, and other specific gases along with the particulate count, humidity, and temperature. It is uncommon for air quality to be tested in Canadian schools. Usually, only elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and universities applying for certain validation such as BOMA, LEED, or Fitwell building standards designations will test air quality. Indoor air quality is a major factor for points given by building standards associations.

However, that being said, as sustainability departments and IAQ departments of educational institutions are becoming more aware of how important air quality is, we see much more attention paid to IAQ standards. Some schools are slowly implementing their internal policies to improve IAQ such as trucks required to turn off their engines while they’re loading and unloading so that they don’t exhaust diesel fumes or carbon monoxide to possibly reach intake grilles, negatively impacting the building’s IAQ.

What are examples of things that lead to poor indoor air quality in schools? 

  • Schools that do not maintain air filters properly. For example, educational facilities wait far too long to change air filters because they do not have enough staff employed to do the required checking and change-outs of air filters
  • Large classroom sizes. Air handling units are designed for student capacity and the size of the room. If schools exceed capacity due to lack of funding, there will being more contaminants being circulated in the air and being inhaled by students. HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems are often not big enough to recirculate and properly filter the air due to being designed originally for low capacities
  • Climate also plays a large role. As cold weather approaches, more people stay indoors. This increases the possibilities for viruses to spread in classrooms, hallways, gyms, auditoriums, lunchrooms, etc. 
  • Pollution from outside easily enters schools through open doors and windows and can be carried in by students entering buildings. If not properly filtered, particulates will cycle through buildings and cause health problems
  • Floors and other surfaces are not cleaned often enough, not cleaned properly, or toxic cleaning agents are used which can greatly contribute to poor IAQ

What are the health effects of poor indoor air quality in schools?

The most common health effects of poor indoor air quality are viral-related illnesses such as COVID-19, cases of flu, and colds. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada, “Health effects associated with indoor air pollutants include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Headaches, dizziness, fatigue, respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.” Also, when students spend too much time indoors, they are more prone to experiencing symptoms of what is referred to as sick building syndrome, “irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; headache; unusual tiredness or fatigue; and, less frequently, dry or itchy skin.” 

Are there any long-term illnesses that could come about from poor indoor air quality?

Many studies have been produced showing that sub-micron particles that you inhale below one micron or at one micron can get into your system, into your bloodstream, into your cells and stay there causing health problems. 

The EPA notes the following health problems associated with particulate pollution:

  • premature death in people with heart or lung disease
  • nonfatal heart attacks
  • irregular heartbeat
  • aggravated asthma
  • decreased lung function
  • increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing

Health effects of particulate matter EPA

How can someone report poor indoor air quality in schools?  

In universities, there is the office of risk management or the office of health and safety. You can also talk to your local parent-teacher association about your concerns. 

What are the main things that affect indoor air quality in schools?

Occupancy within the room or exceeding occupancy. For example, if the room is only designed for 20 people but is being occupied by 40, the air handling units will not be able to remove particulates fast enough. This will increase concentration levels in the room and increase the chances of creating an unhealthy environment.

Poor maintenance of an air handling system is a major issue. If you don’t have dampers working properly and bringing fresh air in as designed, it will cause problems. If you don’t have the proper air filters, low-quality air filters, or air filters that are not the right size in there, that will cause problems also.

To get optimum usage of an air handling system, you should have it running 100% of the time, but often operators don’t run their systems at the proper rate for various reasons. So the question is, how many times is it cycling on and off through the day? Every time the system powers down,there is zero circulation within the room. If other sources of ventilation are not available or portable air cleaners are not being utilized, an air handling system must run often enough to create the originally designed number of air changes per hour. Also, the unit should run before classes begin to create a proper airflow as students populate the classroom. 

Another factor is external sources. Are there intakes near anything that is generating pollutants? Whether it’s a truck idling outside, a garbage bin near one of the intake vents, or toilet exhausts, they can all cause problems.

What can be done to improve indoor air quality in schools?

Many schools have constant speed fans and no mechanism to save energy. So schools tend to turn off the air circulation whenever the temperature is comfortable. Schools are now more often investing in variable frequency drive (VFD) fans.

Schools with VFD systems linked to a building automated system (BAS) can measure room conditions, such as the temperature or humidity, and automatically control the fan operation. Building operators can also schedule when the system should run and adjust the airflow rate when required. When a classroom is expected to be fully occupied, the fans can be ramped up prior, and during the designated time of day. Larger education facilities such as universities and colleges in Canada have installed or are installing more of these systems. Many elementary schools currently aren’t using the VFD-type systems. 

Schools can invest in high-quality air filters that are more efficient, save energy, and last longer. More info  

Do the federal  or provincial governments provide funding to improve indoor air quality in schools? 

Yes, the Government of Canada and provincial governments have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding over the past few years to improve indoor air quality in Canada.

How can schools prepare students or help students avoid flu and COVID?

The decision has been made to keep students in the classroom in Canada, so how can  the spread of viruses in schools be reduced?

  • Don’t overpopulate a classroom beyond its original design to allow for proper airflow and filtration
  • Next, make sure that the air handling unit has proper air filtration with proper MERV filters(MERV 13 minimum) and use air filters that do not degrade in efficiency soon after being installed. A V-bank style or bag filter, MERV 13 is recommended by air filtration experts
  • Discourage any students with symptoms from entering the building

What can provincial governments in Canada do to improve indoor air quality in schools?

The governments can strengthen regulations for indoor air quality in the classroom and establish higher minimum requirements for new or existing schools. Better monitoring of elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and universities would also help in efforts to identify problem areas and take action to solve IAQ problems. Lastly, schools would benefit significantly from better funding for air handling system retrofits and air filtration improvements. 

Every new school HVAC design should be flexible to allow for proper secondary filters or molecular filtration, should it be required. Because once a unit is installed, changing out with proper air filters is very inexpensive. Whereas retrofitting can cost tens of thousands of dollars, selecting the proper flexible air filtration system in the first place may only cost an extra $1000. Also, by installing a more efficient system and using high-quality air filters, schools can save energy over the life of the school which will more than make up for extra initial expenditures.  

Air quality in schools and student achievement 

Many studies have been produced that show improper indoor air quality in educational institutions is detrimental to students, and quality of learning could be at risk because concentration levels suffer from poor IAQ. 

What is the main relation between IAQ and lower student achievement? 

It is a lack of oxygen. The less oxygen entering an HVAC system can negatively affect brain function, either because fans are not bringing in fresh air, or particulate and VOC concentration levels are too high.

How can we improve indoor air quality in schools? 

  • Fresh air must come into all buildings according to ASHRAE Standards and building codes to dilute harmful particles and bring in oxygen
  • Use high-quality air filters to remove particulate matter and molecular (often called carbon filters) air filters to remove harmful gasses
  • Prevent overcrowding of classrooms. Stager class times and lunch times to limit overcrowding of hallways
  • Use portable air cleaners where overcrowding cannot be overcome
  • Better monitoring would go a long way in identifying problem areas and the need for solutions
  • Lessen or eliminate the use of VOC-emitting cleaning products
  • Be sure to have proper airflow and do not let clutter accumulate as this reduces airflow

More on how to improve indoor air quality in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and universities 

For more information on the correct air filtration system for schools and other topics related to air filtration, please contact us and we will be happy to advise you Contact Camfil Canada

HEPA Air Purifiers for schools


For more than half a century, Camfil has been helping people breathe cleaner air. As a leading manufacturer of premium clean air solutions, we provide commercial and industrial systems for air filtration and air pollution control that improve worker and equipment productivity, minimize energy use, and benefit human health and the environment. Read more about Camfil Canada


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Improving indoor air quality of public buildings in Canada

Health Canada info on air quality:

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