Cache Valley – One hundred students at Greenville Elementary – half of them with asthma – are participating in a far-reaching lung function study that will determine whether it is healthier to stay indoors during recess when the air quality is poor.
The study is a larger-scale version of a similar one conducted at Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City, where the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) collected data from air-quality monitors placed inside and outside the school from December 2004 to March 2005. The results showed the air quality inside the school was about three times better than the outdoor air. Then last year, pediatricians measured the lung function of 60 students before and after playing outside at Hawthorne to determine the effect air quality has on schoolchildren’s developing lungs. The University of Utah also participated in this study.
“We have a lot of observations,” said Steven Packham, toxicologist with the Division of Air Quality and member of the Utah Asthma Task Force, which spearheaded the effort. “What we learned was the indoor air is a lot cleaner than outdoor air on high pollution days, by a factor of three or more. We know that an individual who stays inside has less exposure to the air pollutants outside.”
But that isn’t always the case, Packham observed. The study also indicated that on really good air quality days, the air is healthier outside because the air inside is stable and doesn’t fluctuate as much.
“What we want to know is whether or not 15 to 30 minute exposure to poor air quality is an exposure that is unacceptable,” Packham said. “And what are the effects on a student’s respiratory system?”
Libbey Chuy, health program specialist for the Department of Health Asthma Program, said the latest study came about after the State Office of Education, Department of Health and DEQ issued guidelines on when to keep kids indoors. “The guidelines released in 2004 were based on national recommendations and lots of assumptions,” said Chuy. “But the results of these types of studies should only improve decision-making for parents and teachers.”
The study is likely to raise more questions than answers, admitted Dr. Karen Buchi, professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah Medical School, the principal investigator of the study. “I think a very important part of the current research is from the basic science question: We need more information on what impact these very small particles have on children’s health. … and does that change in children before and after recess, and correlate with what the air pollution index is for that day.”
The study is unique, she added, because it involves a collaboration of agencies and experts. The study at Greenville Elementary involves interns from Utah State University and health experts from the Bear River Health Department, who will be conducting the tests.
Dr. Ed Redd, medical officer with the Bear River Health Department, hopes this type of research will lead to better school policies that will help educators and parents determine at what point it is better to keep children inside during recess.
“Currently, schools are on their own to determine whether they should keep students inside during days when the air quality is poor,” he said. “We know what happens after a 24-hour exposure, but what about 30 minutes? We may learn there isn’t any measurable effect on lung function.”
If that’s the case, Dr. Buchi said it may be that the instrument in testing the lung function isn’t sensitive enough. “This will tell us what direction we need to take,” she said. “The original impetus of this was to start the research that would lead to decisions by school districts to keep children inside because it is based on scientific evidence, rather than it just seems like a good idea.”
“It’s really about making choices,” Packham added. “Every decision involves compromises. It is a question of relative risk related to benefit. These decisions aren’t black and white; they are latent with various elements like allowing kids to have exercise. So these kinds of studies are designed to provide reliable information upon which parents and students can make those decisions.”