Stock image of children in a classroom

Breathing Dirty Air: How Two Public Health Professors Are Working to Clean Things Up

  • BY Kimberly Hawkins
  • February 15, 2024

The pandemic exposed how unhealthy indoor air can be. Still — four years later — so much remains unchanged. People are squeezing into public spaces — offices, shops, restaurants and classrooms with faulty or outdated ventilation systems and windows that are shut tight.

Those suffering are those most vulnerable, including our children in classrooms breathing in air pollution, ranging from pet dander and paint fumes to mold, trace metals and formaldehyde. 

“There are very few indoor air quality standards or temperature standards when it comes to schools,” said Michael Schmeltz, Cal State East Bay professor of public health. “We also know that poor air quality and high temperatures have a negative impact on behavior and academic performance. By improving our monitoring and understanding of indoor environments, we can make corrective actions that help to focus students on more important aspects of being in school — learning.”

Cal State East Bay’s Department of Public Health is collaborating with the California Department of Public Health, Sequoia Foundation and Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to address the issue. Improving Indoor Environments Through Civic Engagement — Establishing a Next Generation High School Environmental Ambassadors and Mentoring Program for Oakland will develop an indoor air quality monitoring network in OUSD schools coupled with indoor air quality and climate change curricula for OUSD high school STEM classes and civic engagement activities. 

“I am eager to work with OUSD high school students and Cal State East Bay student mentors to improve hands-on learning, particularly about environmental health,” said Schmeltz. “Having students work on a project that will benefit themselves and their community is exciting as it can have immediate and long-lasting impacts.”

Many parts of Oakland have historically suffered from health and environmental disparities, and by aligning and promoting knowledge and resources to address local environmental issues, the groups working on this project hope to reduce these disparities.

The Environmental Protection Agency is funding the project, along with 185 others, as part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda. The nearly 128 million dollar climate investment is the largest in U.S. history. 

The project will include installing air quality monitors in schools, and collecting and analyzing data. Surveys will also be used to understand knowledge and behavior around indoor air quality. Ultimately, curricula will be developed, implemented and reviewed regularly to assess whether they promote positive health behavioral changes regarding indoor air quality data.

“Projects like this have been piloted but were always fragmented or not aligned with any overall goal or action,” said Schmeltz. “We know that climate change, including wildfires and extreme heat events, will increase in frequency and intensity, so we need to implement these types of programs sooner rather than later so we both build climate resilience schools and work to educate our younger generations on the negative environmental impacts these events can have on our health and our learning.”