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Federal officials seek better indoor air quality rules in schools

WASHINGTON – The Education Department is drafting new guidelines on indoor air safety in schools, administration officials said, as a group of scientists, engineers and experts warn that schools have spent hundreds of millions of federal dollars on electronic air cleaning devices that are not scientifically proven and could produce harmful chemical byproducts.

At least 250 public schools or school systems and some universities have purchased the devices, including ionizers and ozone-generating mechanisms, which lack peer-reviewed scientific data, are unregulated, and could even harm the health of people. students, especially children with asthma or allergies. , say the experts.

“This is a list of the most eminent people working” in the field of indoor air quality, said William Bahnfleth, chair of the American Society of Heating epidemic task force, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. The concerns “are all evidence-based,” he said.

The technology is different from HEPA filters and UV lamps, which are scientifically proven to filter indoor air. Congress did not stipulate in any of its Covid-19 relief laws, which provided for $ 193 billion for schools, what types of devices should be purchased.

An ionization unit is installed in a classroom in Worcester, Massachusetts.Ashley Green Network / USA Today

“When the money was handed out, he didn’t say the magic words: ‘You have to use it on proven technologies,’” said Marwa Zaatari, a member of the task force that compiled a list based on public sources, including press releases. . “They just gave the money. A big part.”

Nicole Goren, a California with two children who has reached out to lawmakers about it, said with billions of dollars in CARES law funding on the table, “my goal is to get to the legislative level.” ie Congress.

Last week, a class action lawsuit was filed against Global Plasma Solutions, one of the top sellers of one of the most popular high-tech ionization technologies among schools, claiming that its devices do not perform as advertised and that they could emit harmful chemicals, according to the depot. Kevin Boyle, a spokesperson for Global Plasma Solutions, said in a statement that “we intend to aggressively defend our technology and our claims.”

Poor ventilation in aging schools was a chronic problem before Covid-19. Because young children are unlikely to be vaccinated this year, schools under pressure to improve air quality are spending millions of dollars on air-purifying “electronic gadgets”, Zaatari said. Well-meaning school officials buy on the basis of marketing materials citing manufacturer-funded lab tests – in the absence of peer-reviewed scientific studies, she said.

The Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America and the Environmental Protection Agency have also warned against ozone generators. The Asthma Foundation says ionizers can irritate the airways and cause asthma symptoms and have not been shown to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Other potentially harmful by-products of ionizers are formaldehyde and ultrafine particles. Zaatari and Bahnfleth are among a dozen scientists, engineers and consultants who have written an open letter warning schools.

“In the absence of regulation and with currently very little peer-reviewed research, important questions remain regarding efficacy and potential impacts on human health,” they wrote.

It is not known how many schools are purchasing ionizers. But the purchases represent millions of billions of dollars of federal CARES Covid-19 relief funds already flowing, Zaatari said. A Kaiser Health News study found that more than 2,000 schools in 44 states purchased the devices during the pandemic.

In a recent interview, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona confirmed that he discussed with Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra “how we can lock our arms “and encourage health experts to” point us to a good strategy to make sure the air quality is there “.

The CDC is concerned enough that it advised the Education Department on how to reach schools, a senior CDC official said. This involves urging schools to demand scientific research showing whether the devices are working and are not emitting potentially dangerous levels of ozone. A spokesperson for the education department said updated guidelines are expected later this month.

Shopping frenzy

In the meantime, hundreds and potentially thousands of schools are purchasing devices that may emit ozone at levels above the limit recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, said. Zaatari.

Public Schools in Newark, New Jersey used CARES Act funds to purchase 4,500 ionizing air purifiers, worth more than $ 7 million, said Valerie Merritt, a spokesperson for the school district. She said several schools in Newark recently measured safe ozone levels with working hydroxyl air processors. Zaatari said the use of devices that emit any amount of ozone is dangerous because it is “highly reactive” inside, forming new pollutants, such as formaldehyde, among other things.

Marwa Zaatari, air quality expert.Ahmad Zaatari

The Spotsylvania County School District in Virginia has spent $ 1.4 million on ionizers for dozens of schools, according to invoices Zaatari obtained through a public records request and provided to NBC News.

Marc Broklawski, a parent of two, said, “They see our school districts overflowing with federal government money.” He said he repeatedly requested independent security data from the seller but did not receive it.

Broklawski, whose wife is a chemistry teacher in the district, said he believed many educators were afraid to speak out. Schools under pressure to reopen while protecting unvaccinated children made “snap decisions” to install the devices, he said. Broklawski is so concerned about a secondary “health crisis” due to air quality in schools that he has decided to run for the school board.

Amber Belako, a spokesperson for the school district, said in a statement that the district had installed ionizers “after months of research and consultation with industry professionals.”

“There are safety measures in place in our HVAC systems and the ionization units only work if the HVAC system is working,” said Belako, who said the system is a “mitigation strategy” used with other measures.

A CDC study found that indoor ozone is not expected to exceed 10 parts per billion; Studies done using units like the ones purchased by Newark schools have found ozone levels several times higher, Zaatari said, citing tests performed for the company. The ozone standard set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, and the Environmental Protection Agency for devices that generate ozone indoors is 5 ppb, Zaatari said.

No more concerns

The EPA also has a detailed warning on its website regarding ozone generators sold as air purifiers. Some ozone generators are made with an “ion generator” or “ionizer” in the same unit, he said.

Often times, vendors of ozone generators make statements and distribute materials that lead the public to believe that these devices are still safe and effective in controlling indoor air pollution. For nearly a century, professionals health officials have refuted these claims, ”he said.

Yet, Zaatari said, there are no federal regulations for devices or standards to test the effectiveness and safety of specific devices.

“It is almost criminal that after the relentless efforts of many experts to push for better indoor air quality and millions of dollars in relief funds, we find ourselves with even worse air quality in the city. some schools, ”she said.



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