Dear Umbra,

My four-year-old daughter is attending a brand-new preschool program in a brand-new building this fall. Nothing was missed in setting up the school for the best possible education for young minds. Unfortunately, it’s filled with all those toxic “new” smells. When we toured the building, I developed a headache within five minutes. Are there any known mitigators for those already-installed toxic smells, like salt crystal lamps or other natural ionizers? My daughter has asthma, so her health is critical and could prompt us to go elsewhere until the smells subside.

Carla Hall
Indianapolis, Ind.

Dearest Carla,

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In today’s industrial society, indoor air pollution is a big worry for just about everyone. At least, it should be. Toxic building products abound, and sensitive groups, including kids, usually take the brunt of this trend. So you’re right to be concerned, especially about schools, where over 20 percent of the U.S. population — and most of the nation’s kids — spend the bulk of their days.

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School daze.

Photo: iStockphoto

Our friends at the U.S. EPA tell us most indoor air-quality complaints in schools have to do with the stink from flooring, adhesives, paints, sealants, and lumber. The odor itself isn’t really the problem, though — it’s the nasties behind the odor, known as volatile organic compounds. VOCs such as formaldehyde are released from building materials over time. Yuck. To help soften this toxic blow, the EPA has instituted voluntary measures for schools. Most of the tips on their site have to do with mitigation during construction and planning, and won’t be immediately relevant to you (though they might help others whose school districts are planning to build or renovate). My own Washington state also has a useful set of comprehensive recommendations [PDF].

But back to your question: there are some things you can do to improve your daughter’s surroundings. The list of what you probably don’t want to do begins with using ionizing, ozonating air-purifying units. These are marketed as toxic cure-alls, but the EPA disputes their effectiveness and they usually release ozone, which is a pollutant itself and not advised for indoor use. And though I know I’m asking for trouble here, salt crystal lamps sound like a lot of hooey to me. From what I understand, they are just a small light bulb inside a salt rock. They may discharge some negative ions now and then, which may or may not help air quality on some very, very minor level, but their effectiveness is less than certain and they don’t seem to be designed to work quickly in large areas, which is what you need.

Instead, the EPA recommends that new school buildings employ something called — ready for new terminology? — a flush out. This involves forcing outdoor air through the building for three to 90 days to remove pollutants. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to ask the administrators at your daughter’s school what they have done to mitigate the effects of the new building materials. They may or may not have already done a flush out or used other techniques. (If they are reluctant, then it may be your turn to educate them [PDF].)

If the school has made an effort and the building is still giving off what you believe are too many nasties, you should consult your health-care practitioner for advice. You may want to look around for a less-toxic school or maybe even delay your daughter’s enrollment until next year or next semester (do pre-schools do semesters?). A good education is important, but if you can’t breathe or concentrate due to emissions, it’s difficult to get much out of it.