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Historic study confirms connection between ventilation problems and health

A new study from the University of Helsinki is the first confirmed academic indication that ventilation and mould problems in schools and housing are connected with health concerns and even chronic conditions.

Koululuokka.
Mouldy classrooms have been a pox on Finnish public health for years. Image: Sakari Partanen / Yle

A microbiology study from the University of Helsinki has proven for the first time that there is a connection between indoor ventilation problems and health.

The study recorded a total of 136 mould- or mildew-related symptoms and 50 diseases from 232 teachers. Phenomena included pain, eye and joint trouble, feelings of illness and coughing. The severity of the symptoms directly correlated with the toxicity of the classrooms in question.

The study initially included more than 400 teachers from 15 Helsinki schools. Two different research groups gathered the teachers' health information and collected samples from the school buildings in the same month. The study material only included teachers who had worked in the same space for at least a year.

"Many rooms with high toxicity had to be left out of the study because the teachers who had worked in them had come and gone in rapid succession. We would not have been able to connect the teachers' symptoms to any specific classroom without the minimum time requirement," explains microbiologist Mirja Salkinoja-Salonen, head of the research team.

Pig cells used to test for microbes

The connection between ventilation problems and health has been studied in the past as well, but never with conclusive results.

"Science knows of nearly 200 types of microbe that live indoors and cause the kind of symptoms we're looking at," Salkinoja-Salonen says. "But they tend not to multiply in humans, so no microbes have been found in patients so far."

Because of this recurring setback the researchers investigated further. Instead of simply searching for impurities, the toxicity of classroom air and surfaces was measured using test cells, specifically pig sperm. The sperm cells are extremely sensitive to environmental toxins, and animal subjects are not allowed to be used in research of this kind.

Education union: Unsustainable mould situation

Chair Hanna Iso-Kurtti of the Trade Union of Education (OAJ) says that ventilation and mould troubles are "all too familiar" to teachers.

"There are far too many classrooms with these problems. People mostly talk about mould, but many other things such as ventilation are involved. Speech difficulties, head colds and congestion are common," Iso-Kurtti says.

OAJ is making efforts to improve the indoor air quality of schools by turning to occupational health and safety representatives. Helsinki's Board of Education receives some 350 complaints per year from teachers about classrooms causing symptoms.

Changes necessary

Salkinoja-Salonen says she is happy with the study's  results, and especially its promise of future measuring devices that could pick up on poor air quality before symptoms even occur.

"At the moment the only indicators in use are the children and staff in schools and daycare centres. I consider this to be criminal. In future toxicity measurements have to be enough to prompt change."

The university research team has handed in a number of reports based on their findings to the City of Helsinki Real Estate and Education Departments.

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