Public Health & Recreation

Bill Addresses Monitoring, Improving Air Quality in R.I. Schools

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Vartan Gregorian Elementary School is one of 24 Providence schools within 1,000 feet of a major roadway, in this case Interstate 195. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

In 2019, Elizabeth Goldberg, an emergency physician and associate professor at Brown University, stumbled upon an ecoRI News article about air quality in Providence schools.

Goldberg read about how Providence has 24 schools within 1,000 feet of major roads, when the recommended distance for newly constructed school buildings is at least 1,500 feet.

She also read how Vartan Gregorian Elementary School, which is at the corner of Wickenden and East streets and directly adjacent to Interstate 195, had high rates of black carbon and nitrogen dioxide both inside and outside the 67-year-old building.

As an emergency physician with a master’s in epidemiology, and as a parent of a child at Vartan Gregorian, Goldberg was shocked that nothing was being done about this.

“I take care of patients with asthma, kids and adults, and as a parent of a kid in the Providence public schools, at Gregorian, which is within 200 feet of a major highway … I was surprised that there wasn’t any kind of regular air monitoring,” Goldberg said. “I started looking at some air sensor data … and I saw that Boston generally had better air quality than Providence, and well, that was kind of eye-opening.”

Goldberg began advocating for stand-alone air purifiers to be put in all Providence schools, started contacting local officials, and was appointed to the Providence School Board.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and air quality monitoring and purification became hot topic issues.

“When COVID started, I was really hopeful because we know that ventilation and filtration reduce your chances of getting respiratory viruses, and stand-alone air purifiers also really help improve ventilation filtration and reduce pollution inside schools,” Goldberg said. “This really all kind of came together and now actually I think all the Providence public schools have stand-alone air purifiers now.”

Goldberg hopes that this issue stays on people’s radar beyond COVID-19, and that when students are back in the classroom, the health and well-being of everyone in the building will be considered.

“Everyone wants to make sure that this progress continues, and I think until we have legislation that really spells out who will be doing air quality monitoring, and what mitigation measures will be taken, my fear is that this will be a one-time quality check,” she said.

But there is a glimmer of hope at the Statehouse.

Less than 1,000 feet behind the Vartan Gregorian Elementary School playground sits heavily travelled Interstate 195.

On Jan. 19, Sen. Gayle Goldin, from District 3 in Providence, introduced a bill relating to air quality in schools.

“The department of health in conjunction with the department of environmental management shall conduct indoor and outdoor air quality tests annually in every school in Rhode Island, including public and private schools,” according to the bill.

The bill would also require these results to be publicly available and for there to be a plan to improve air quality in Rhode Island schools.

Goldin said she has been pushing to pass an air quality monitoring and improvement bill for years.

“This bill actually predates COVID,” she said. “I was having conversations with parents of children at Vartan Gregorian … and they were concerned that we didn’t have adequate information about air quality outside the school let alone inside the school. I volunteer in plenty of Providence schools and there is a real difference with the quality of buildings. You can sit in classrooms where the ceiling is falling out and you just have to assume that the air quality is pretty bad.”

The lack of ownership on the part of various state agencies as to who would conduct air quality testing and implement mitigation efforts means there is little to no data on the subject.

But Goldin and Goldberg are hopeful that the attention COVID-19 has given to air quality issues and school buildings will spur action.

“I feel like this is an opportunity, a moment in which people can realize how incredibly important environmental factors are to going into a building to learn and spending eight hours a day there,” Goldin said. “I hope that it doesn’t even require the passage of this bill for the State to take on the responsibility for doing this. I would love to see the State put in a plan immediately to address air quality and figure out how they are going to not only assess it, but also address the problems with this in every school in the state.”

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