Ventilation and Fresh Air in Dealing with Illness

Several years ago, a study examined changes in student test scores following renovations meant to improve indoor air quality.

The renovations—which were done in a Texas district and cost between $300,000 and $500,000 depending on the school—addressed mold, high VOC (volatile organic compound) levels and poor ventilation at 66 elementary schools. The results were astounding.

The research showed an improvement in standardized testing pass rates of 2-4%, depending on the type of renovations—more extension projects generally produced greater improvements in student achievement. The study found that making air quality improvements would be a more cost-effective way to improve test scores than reducing class sizes and hiring more teachers.

Ventilation and Fresh Air

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find countless studies like this, which link fresh air to increased learning and retention. Yet for years, school districts have been diverting maintenance funding away from facilities and maintenance to use on other perceived priorities.

As an example, when I started as the director of facilities, maintenance, and operations at East Side Union High School District in San Jose a few years ago, HVAC techs were intentionally disabling ventilation systems. Talk about not having a clue!

Benefits of Ventilation and Fresh Air

The benefits of clean ventilation and fresh air in dealing with respiratory illness dates back centuries. In 1631, concluding that indoor conditions were causing health problems, King Charles I decreed that the ceilings in houses in England must be 10 feet high or more and that windows must be higher than their width to allow for natural ventilation.

If the leader of the British Empire nearly 400 years ago recognized the importance of circulation and ventilation, why can’t school district officials, building superintendents and others in positions to make real change when it comes to fresh air?

Things Could’ve Been Different

And then there’s Dr. George Bodington. You likely haven’t heard of George Bodington. He was a British general practitioner who specialized in pulmonary medicine. In 1840, the good doctor published an essay called “On the Treatment and Cure of Pulmonary Consumption” where he condemned all contemporary treatments for pulmonary diseases like tuberculosis. Instead, Bodington advocated for a combination of fresh air, gentle exercise outdoors and a nutritious, varied diet.

Bodington wrote that he observed that people who spent the majority of their time indoors were more susceptible to tuberculosis than those who worked outside, like farmers, shepherds and plowmen—they were usually free of the disease. Instead of being praised for his findings, Bodington and his assertions were attacked, and he became disheartened with his pulmonary research. He finished his medical career studying insanity while running an asylum.

Following Bodington, as early as 1872, there was a feeling that carbon dioxide concentration closely correlates to perceived air quality, and in 1919, the British Medical Journal wrote that the best way to combat influenza infection was deep breathing of cool fresh air and sleeping in the open.

Ventilation and Fresh Air

If you Google the words ‘ventilation and COVID-19,’ you’ll find numerous articles from the CDC and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers about using fresh air to treat illness like it’s some new miracle cure. We’ve known about its benefits for hundreds of years. It is alarming how long we’ve known about the benefits of clean air without acting on that knowledge.