Permanent Solutions for Temporary Buildings

Nancy Sanker Health Guide
  • A completed Master’s degree is just around the corner, but first, my son, Shane must do a semester of student teaching. Two weeks ago he received his assignment, an almost-new high school North of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. My husband and I were fortunate enough to see his school, but along the way we noticed a school with multiple portables or temporary buildings. “A-ha,” I thought as we traveled one curving road after another, “If Shane had been placed in a school with portables, the staff would have received an education about the potential poor air quality of temporary buildings and the simple solutions to help.”

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    Portables, temporary, relocatables or modular buildings – whatever the terminology - they are springing up all over the country in areas where people and tasks exceed the amount of space provided by traditional buildings or “stick construction.” Portables offer relatively quick and inexpensive solutions for schools, churches, and even military posts such as FortDix

    where modular units are being used to help create the Military Operating Base, a training city. At the Air Station in Elizabeth City, NC, the United States Coast Guard chose modular units to quickly provide extra office space for an air craft repair center.


    These buildings are intended to provide flexibility and easy transfer in response to additional responsibilities and changing demographics, but the reality is that these temporary structures frequently become permanent. My primary area of concern, though, are the portables used for classrooms because of the large numbers of children who are affected, and in the true spirit of feeling concern once you or someone you love is potentially in a threatening situation, now I care more about the school staff too. Shane was diagnosed with asthma at the young age of nine months and continues to have sensitive airways.


    The Modular Building Institute notes that there are currently more than 300,000 portables or relocatable classrooms in use across the United States, housing more than 5,000,000 children annually. According to a report by the American Lung Association Epidemiology and Statistics Unit, “Trends in Morbidity and Mortality”, published in May 2005, about 1 of every 11 school-aged children and youth have asthma.


    The bottom line -more than 450,000 students with susceptible airways are spending their classroom hours breathing air that may be questionable. Christopher Randolph, MD, FAAAI, draws the connection between asthma, mold and portables, “Mold growth that occurs in buildings has been associated with health problems, ranging from respiratory problems, cough and wheezing to headache, fatigue, weakness and even gastrointestinal symptoms.



    There is excellent evidence that molds worsen existing allergy and asthma symptoms, particularly common molds, indoor and outdoor. Temporary structures within schools such as trailers and portable classrooms have been associated with moisture and mold and related conditions.” Air quality is important. Good health is at stake, but so is effective learning.


    Glen I. Earthman notes in his 2002 study, “Researchers have repeatedly found a difference of between 5 and 17 percentile points in the achievement of students in poor buildings and those in standard buildings, when the socioeconomic status of students is controlled.”


    Not all portables have poor air quality, but they are prone to have less than stellar air because of these issues:

    • Poorly functioning HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) systems that provide minimal ventilation with outside air. To make matters worse, teachers turn off the ventilating systems 60% of the time because of excessive noise and poor acoustics.

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    • Chemical off-gassing from pressed wood and other high-emission materials. Chemicals may cause problems in traditional buildings also, but pressed wood which may contain higher amounts of formaldehyde is used more frequently in factory-built portables. What causes the alarm bell to ring even louder? Portables are frequently occupied relatively quickly after construction.


    • Water entry and mold growth. Portables are sometimes situated on ground that is inadequately drained or in the paths of sprinkler systems.


    • Site pollution from nearby parking lots, highways or loading areas with excessive exhaust and/or dust. Creating quality breathing space in portables Here’s the best news - there are ways to make portables quick, cost-effective and healthy building solutions.


    The following tips will ensure better breathing:


    1. Educate staff about the HVAC system and include an easy-to-locate set of instructions for quick reference with each portable. Vents should be turned on one hour before class starts each day. Outdoor air should be supplied continuously when the portable is occupied. In order to do this, the HVAC thermostat should be set in the “on” or continuous mode when occupied. If noise is excessive, consider using a wireless microphone.


    2. New units should be “flushed out” by running the HVAC system several days before use. They should not be “baked out” by raising the temperature over 100 degrees in an effort to artificially age the portable. This process has not been proven to be successful and may, in fact, damage the structure. New units should also be checked for well-sealed windows, doors and gutters that may have loosened while the unit was being transported.


    3. Maintenance staff should be trained to regularly check moisture levels, dampers and vents and to replace filters. They should watch for rust spots, wet spots, mold and other signs of deterioration. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, mold should be cleaned with a solution of 1 ounce of bleach to one quart water (in bleach-proof areas.).When carpets are cleaned, adequate ventilation must be provided so they dry within 24 hours. In fact, all damp or wet building materials or furnishings should be dried within 24-48 hours to prevent mold growth.


    4. There should not be moisture-collecting carpet in the entryways. If carpeting already exists, cover with waterproof mats. There should be a mat outside the entry to collect moisture as well as pesticides collected on shoes. This is exceptionally important in portables that serve young children who spend much of their day playing on the carpet.


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    5. Portables should be located in well-drained, graded areas away from exhaust-ridden, dusty parking lots and busy highways. Sprinklers should not hit the sides of the portables.


    6. Older portables should be retired when they become unserviceable and cannot provide a healthy learning, working or living environment. According to the Modular Building Institute, today’s portables are designed to last for up to thirty years, but that is dependent upon proper maintenance. Individuals across America attend school, drop their children off for daycare, worship and go to work in portables.


    They deserve to breathe the quality air that will give them their best performance now and good health in the future. That’s just the message Shane’s school staff would have received if he was teaching in a school with portables. Additional Resources American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, Mold in Schools: The importance of school air quality and its affect on asthma –Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America – Control the Mold in our Your Home –   California Portable Classrooms Study National Asthma Education and Prevention Program – Resolution on Asthma Management at School – Portables Toolkit from the Modular Building Institute U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Indoor Air Design Tools for Schools, “Portable Classrooms”


Published On: February 23, 2007