To assess whether school environments can adversely affect academic performance, we review scientific evidence relating indoor pollutants and thermal conditions, in schools or other indoor environments, to human performance or attendance. We critically review evidence for direct associations between these aspects of indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and performance or attendance. Secondarily, we summarize, without critique, evidence on indirect connections potentially linking IEQ to performance or attendance. Regarding direct associations, little strongly designed research was available. Persuasive evidence links higher indoor concentrations of NO(2) to reduced school attendance, and suggestive evidence links low ventilation rates to reduced performance. Regarding indirect associations, many studies link indoor dampness and microbiologic pollutants (primarily in homes) to asthma exacerbations and respiratory infections, which in turn have been related to reduced performance and attendance. Also, much evidence links poor IEQ (e.g. low ventilation rate, excess moisture, or formaldehyde) with adverse health effects in children and adults and documents dampness problems and inadequate ventilation as common in schools. Overall, evidence suggests that poor IEQ in schools is common and adversely influences the performance and attendance of students, primarily through health effects from indoor pollutants. Evidence is available to justify (i) immediate actions to assess and improve IEQ in schools and (ii) focused research to guide IEQ improvements in schools.
Practical implications: There is more justification now for improving IEQ in schools to reduce health risks to students than to reduce performance or attendance risks. However, as IEQ-performance links are likely to operate largely through effects of IEQ on health, IEQ improvements that benefit the health of students are likely to have performance and attendance benefits as well. Immediate actions are warranted in schools to prevent dampness problems, inadequate ventilation, and excess indoor exposures to substances such as NO(2) and formaldehyde. Also, siting of new schools in areas with lower outdoor pollutant levels is preferable.