DUBAI // Children may be losing concentration in class and taking more time off with illness because of poor air quality in schools.
Tests in five state and three private schools over a period of eight hours found excessive levels of carbon dioxide in one classroom and of volatile organic compounds elsewhere.
Few schools realise air quality affects the learning process, said Dr Moshood Fadeyi, an assistant professor at the British University in Dubai who is overseeing the air-quality study.
"They discuss green initiatives without realising that this is an important link in the equation. Dubai Municipality has set standards, but they are not adhering to them."
The muncipality says volatile organic compounds should not exceed 300 micrograms per cubic metre cubed. The international standard is 200mcg.
In the UK, there should be less than 1,500 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air. International and local authorities limit ozone to 0.06 ppm. Exceeding these limits can lead to respiratory ailments, nausea, eye irritation, drowsiness and long-term health problems.
Researchers from the British University in Dubai, funded by the Emirates Foundation, tested the thermal comfort, sound level, visual, spatial and acoustics in classrooms with 35 pupils each.
All eight schools tested above the comfort range for volatile organic compounds, with the maximum going up to 3,130mcg. "This can cause sneezing and coughing," said Dr Fadeyi.
Triggers for such high levels can be strong perfumes, or the paints and materials used in buildings. "It can also be caused when the school buses are parked very close to the classrooms," he said.
A high concentration of carbon dioxide, which can lead to fatigue and sleepiness, was found across the board with one classroom recording 2,326 ppm.
"In all classrooms the carbon dioxide was very high because they were crowded and there was no proper ventilation," said Dr Fadeyi.
The results came as no surprise to teachers and principals, some of whom said their schools would probably have the same results if tested.
"It is very difficult to do anything in the summer months when our old AC units break down," said Yousef Al Shehhi, principal of Al Rams Secondary School in Ras Al Khaimah. "The children just lose their concentration and become fidgety."
Maghoury Mohammad, an English teacher at Al Shahbaa School in Sharjah, said the noise from his AC unit was so distracting he has to "stop it while giving a presentation because the children cannot hear me otherwise".
"Of course it is not convenient. The ministry must replace them with spilt ACs and increase the frequency of maintenance."
Malay Shroff, chief operating officer at Hitches and Glitches, one of the facilities management companies contracted by the Ministry of Education to address school maintenance issues last year, conceded the conditions he had seen were appalling.
H&G has had to replace more than 800 units and carry out 13,000 services, some for the first time.
"Many schools still use window ACs and they are old and neglected," said Mr Shroff, whose company manages 120 ministry schools. "The filters I saw were choked and so their efficiency was zero."
They found birds' nests in some units that had not been cleaned out. "Imagine the fine bird mites circulating in the classroom. It could lead to bronchitis, asthma and skin allergies."
Redha Salman, director of public health and safety at Dubai Municipality, said they regularly checked indoor air quality.
"We have mandatory guidelines for all aspects, temperature and humidity," he said. "If people feel like this quality is not being maintained, we suggest they make a case with us." Offending schools could be closed down, he said.