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  February 17, 2004

New Center Seeks To Improve Health
In Schools, Office Buildings

For many schoolteachers, summer is more than a welcome break in routine - it's an opportunity to get healthy. The coughs, colds, and sinus problems that plague them during the school year fade away during the long vacation.

Image: Eileen Storey

Dr. Eileen Storey heads the new Center for Indoor Environments and Health at the UConn Health Center.

Photo by Peter Morenus

"We see a number of teachers in our practice with building-related respiratory diseases," says Dr. Eileen Storey, associate professor of occupational and environmental medicine. "This type of disease often lasts through the school year and clears up over the summer. Or if we restrict the teachers from work for a month, it clears up or greatly improves."

Because of her growing concern over the problem, Storey took an academic leave of absence two years ago to work and study with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and its team of indoor air quality experts. NIOSH established a research initiative at the Division of Respiratory Disease Studies to investigate the extent to which indoor environments contribute to respiratory disease and to gain a better understanding of the causes of building-related diseases.

Storey joined the team's effort to study outbreaks of disease and to develop methods to evaluate exposures. When she returned to Connecticut last year, she established the Center for Indoor Environments and Health at the Health Center.

"One of our goals is to provide school communities with assistance sorting through and responding to the complex health problems related to school building conditions," she says.

The focus has broadened beyond the teachers and other adults working in the schools to include the students. "For every teacher with work-related respiratory symptoms, there are 20 to 24 students who may be affected by poor indoor air quality," says Storey. The center provides similar support to workers, employers, and building owners facing problems with symptoms in office buildings.

"We think the unifying theme is water getting into buildings," Storey says. "Older buildings seem to shed water better than newer buildings. For example, when wallboard, a modern building material, gets wet, it develops into a fine food for microbial agents like bacteria and mold. When these organisms become airborne, people can develop allergic reactions."

Storey and the center participated in a study released last month by Environment and Human Health Inc. of North Haven which concluded, among other things, that nearly 10 percent of Connecticut students in grades kindergarten through five have asthma. It also found that asthma affects more students in urban areas than in suburban and rural communities, and that children in poorer neighborhoods have higher rates of asthma than those in more affluent communities.

"We deliberately included some questions about the environmental characteristics of schools," says Storey.

As a result, the study became the first in Connecticut to collect simultaneous information on asthma prevalence and school environment factors that may influence asthma symptoms.

The study concluded that "schools with highest asthma rates were more likely to be located on the side of or at the bottom of a hill, had more roofs described as flat, more roof leaks, were more likely to have carpets in all classrooms, and were more often engaged in renovations with children present."

Indoor non-industrial work environments were designated a priority research area for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 1996. "Our goal at the center is to help play a major role in that initiative," says Storey, who is a co-team leader for the NIOSH-sponsored National Occupational Research Agenda.

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