Poor Ventilation in BU Classrooms Poses COVID-19 Risks
By Grace Ferguson
Some Boston University classrooms might have ventilation issues, which could lead to higher COVID-19 transmission. Data collected from CAS classrooms in 2018 showed carbon dioxide levels far above what authorities recommend.
The data comes from the research of one PhD student in BU’s Earth and Environment program. Sarabeth Buckley collected the carbon dioxide readings, and she defended her dissertation last fall. Now, she’s doing postdoctoral research at Cambridge University.
“I wasn’t expecting the numbers to get as high as they did,” Buckley said.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health recommends that indoor carbon dioxide levels stay below 800 parts per million, but in the classrooms Buckley studied, the average carbon dioxide levels exceeded 1000 parts per million.
Readings above 2000 parts per million in these classrooms were not uncommon, and some classrooms even peaked above 3000 parts per million—almost four times what the health department recommends.
High carbon dioxide levels can lead to cognition issues and other health problems, but more importantly, they are an indicator for bad ventilation. The coronavirus travels through droplets in the air, so air flow could affect virus transmission. The CDC recommends increasing ventilation in workplaces, schools, and commercial establishments.
“It really seems like ventilation is an important piece that isn’t really being looked at,” Buckley said, “and could make the campus much safer if it was improved and brought to a higher standard”
Buckley’s research actually started with plants, rather than people. When she collected the data, she was hoping to use the carbon dioxide to fertilize rooftop gardens.
But Buckley knew her research could be important from a public health perspective too. That’s why she teamed up with Kate Connolly, a PhD student who studies indoor air quality in BU’s School of Public Health.
“It’s very exciting to see indoor air quality get some attention, because I think about it a lot, of course, and it is one of my main research interests,” Connolly said.
The two are now working on a paper that combines their disciplines. Their work still centers on using carbon dioxide for rooftop gardens, but Connolly can see how their research is now more relevant during the pandemic.
“Yes, you’re sharing surfaces; yes, [you’re having] close contact; but you’re also sharing the air and that’s always been a potential way to transmit this virus,” Connolly said.
BU plans to adjust its ventilation systems as it brings students back to campus this fall. According to the Campus Planning and Operations website, BU will circulate more outdoor air into buildings when possible. The university will also inspect its systems and make sure they’re running for longer periods of time.
In an email, BU Spokesman Colin Riley said BU is going over every ventilation system as it prepares for fall, and the university has hired outside experts to help.
“During this extraordinary time the administration is working to ensure it has put in place the necessary and appropriate public health precautions for a safe return to campus,” Riley wrote.
Buckley said she has shown her research to CAS facilities management, and they have been responsive. WTBU could not reach them for comment.