Unhealthy air quality guidance for schools

Having trouble viewing this email? View it as a Web page.

Unhealthy air quality guidance for schools

Health advisory

Sept. 13, 2020

Smoke from wildfires in the region is affecting local air quality. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department recommends school personnel regularly monitor outdoor air quality in your area to ensure student safety. Wildfire season is increasing in scope and duration in Washington, and schools should anticipate potential impacts from wildfire smoke in late summer and early fall.

Washington Department of Health recommends you cancel all outdoor activities—outdoor classes or field trips, youth sports camps, practices, games, etc.—during times of unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous air quality. Outdoor activities may be moved indoors as long as you can comply with Washington Department of Health COVID-19 guidance.

Please refer to Washington Department of Health’s Air Pollution and School Activities advisory tool for current information on the health effects of air pollution and precautions to take.


Health effects of wildfire smoke and COVID-19

During times of unhealthy air quality, everyone may begin to experience health effects. Members of sensitive groups—children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with heart or lung issues—may experience more significant health effects. Health effects include worsening of heart or lung disease, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, coughing and eye and sinus irritation.

People affected by COVID-19 may experience more serious health effects during wildfire smoke events. Serious complications, like pneumonia, may develop and require medical care or hospitalization. Please refer to DOH Guidance for more information.


Balancing building ventilation considerations for wildfire smoke and COVID-19

Environmental Protection Agency’s COVID-19 guidance recommends upgrading HVAC filters, as appropriate for your specific building and HVAC system, to a MERV 13 or the highest possible compatible filter. They also recommend increasing fresh air ventilation rates.

Wildfire smoke guidance also suggests that your building’s HVAC system should have at least a MERV 13 air filter. If your HVAC system does not allow for a MERV 13 or greater, your HVAC system does not protect against wildfire smoke and may increase health risks. When air quality is unhealthy or hazardous, the guidance in the Washington Air Quality Advisory table recommends turning off your fresh air intake so you do not bring smoke into the building. Each HVAC system is unique, and facilities management must decide how best to protect indoor air quality with their particular HVAC system.

If a building is occupied and not bringing in outside air, strengthen other COVID-19 recommendations such as:

  • Reduce building occupancy.
  • Increase physical distancing.
  • Increase mask use, even if working alone.

It is challenging to balance both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke guidance as they can contradict one another. If your HVAC system cannot meet these guidelines, we recommend you develop an alternative plan for students and staff to ensure their health and safety. Each school has unique HVAC systems and will need to consider the HVAC characteristics of each building, building use, and vulnerability of occupants. In some cases, this may mean that the safest and best option is for schools to close until air quality improves.


Masking considerations

  • Properly fitted N95 masks do provide protection against both wildfire smoke and COVID-19 transmission. Labor & Industries guidance states N95 masks must be individually fit tested before an employer can require they be worn. N95 masks can be distributed for those who wish to voluntarily wear them without fit testing.
  • KN95 masks are not yet certified to protect against wildfire smoke. They do provide protection against COVID-19.
  • Cloth masks do not provide protection against wildfire smoke. They do provide protection against COVID-19.
  • Because of ongoing supply shortages, if you do not already have N95 masks on hand, we recommend you save N95 or other medical-grade masks for healthcare providers, first responders, and other frontline workers.

Wildfire smoke conditions change rapidly. We recommend schools monitor air quality conditions as they would any other weather related event.

Learn more at www.tpchd.org/wildfiresmoke.

Questions? Contact us at (253) 798-6500.