Research Story

The quality of the air we breathe has a bearing on our general health. High levels of CO2 in classrooms, for example, can affect children's cognitive performance. With this in mind, the SCOL'AIR-FR research project was launched in order to gain a better understanding of air quality in Fribourg primary schools. Over an 18-month period, the Radon and Indoor Air Quality Centre of Western Switzerland (croqAIR), the project lead, will carry out four measurement campaigns in 48 classrooms of 24 schools. croqAIR, part of the TRANSFORM Institute of the School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg (HEIA-FR), is based at the Smart Living Lab.

The idea for the project came from a one-week CO2 measurement campaign which croqAIR conducted, on behalf of the cantonal Office for Energy, in some 1,500 classrooms across the canton of Fribourg. Joëlle Goyette Pernot, a professor at the TRANSFORM Institute of the HEIA-FR and the Federal Office of Public Health's Radon Delegate for French-speaking Switzerland, saw an opportunity to build on this work, "CO2 is a good indicator of air quality", but it is not the only one. Other indicators include chemical pollutants, fine particles, and radon, a gas has been classified as a carcinogen since the 1980s. In 2017, Switzerland introduced the Radiological Protection Ordinance (RPO) which, among other things, sets down the maximum permissible levels of radon in all living spaces. The communal authorities oversee radon safety management in public buildings, including schools.

To ventilate or not to ventilate

According to Prof. Goyette Pernot, "By offering our official radon measurement services, we not only enabled the municipalities to meet their legal obligation in this regard but also to recruit 24 schools which were willing to give us access to one or two of their classrooms so that we could collect lots more data. Half of these schools are of standard construction, which means that natural ventilation is controlled by manually opening and shutting windows. The other half have mechanical ventilation systems. What we want to find out is whether good ventilation improves learning and teaching performance. The data we collect in these classrooms should help us answer some of these questions." In each of the 48 classrooms, passive and active sensors record the levels of several variables, including CO2, radon, fine particles, formaldehydes, organic compounds, temperature and humidity, over a one-week period. "When you factor in school holidays, it will take eight, maybe 10 weeks to complete the measurement campaign. We have planned several campaigns each year."

Two campaigns, two sets of recommendations

The SCOL'AIR-FR research team will use the data collected from the first campaign to formulate recommendations on the improvements that schools could make before the next measurement campaign begins, "We will be able to observe the impact of this advice during our second visit", notes Matias Cesari, a researcher with the TRANSFORM group. For Prof. Goyette Pernot,"The advice will be simple and require little financial outlay. It could range from an awareness campaign to encourage better classroom ventilation right through to changing cleaning products. Recommendations may even include adjustments to or maintenance work on the school's existing ventilation system."

"The Covid-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the importance of good indoor air quality."

— Prof. Joëlle Goyette Pernot

Better awareness around ventilation

For Cesari, having access to data over the long term would also be beneficial, "Covid-19 led to greater awareness of the importance of good ventilation. The question is whether these practices will continue. The CO2 monitors we use serve to educate. As well as displaying the various measurements, they use a colour code index to show how good or bad the air quality is. This certainly acts as a prompt to ventilate better. A permanent sensor, however, would soon be forgotten and would therefore give a truer picture of the occupants' ventilation behaviour in the long term. Another of SCOL'AIR-FR's stated objectives is to use the results to raise awareness among the local authorities and families. According to Prof. Goyette Pernot, "We need to take indoor air quality much more seriously. Camouflaging bad smells by burning a candle or incense does not solve the problem. Quite the contrary! The publication of our results will be a good opportunity to repeat this message." At the end of the project, the measurement protocol applied in the canton of Fribourg could be rolled out to other cantons in French-speaking Switzerland.

"We need to take indoor air quality much more seriously."

Indoor air quality observatory

A few years ago, Prof. Goyette Pernot, together with several research partners from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, set up an Indoor Air Quality Observatory for French-speaking Switzerland and Ticino (ORTQAI). This pilot project, which is funded by the Federal Office of Public Health and supported by SABRA (the canton of Geneva's air, noise and non-ionising radiation agency), aims to bring together researchers, engineering and architecture practices and companies working in the measurement, health and indoor environment field.

"ORTQAI is an observatory and a platform for exchange on these issues and pools a wide range of expertise", notes Prof. Goyette Pernot. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to greater public interest in indoor air quality. The observatory now aims to provide better knowledge of the state of indoor air quality and its effects, even though there is currently no legislation in Switzerland in this area. The SCOL'AIR-FR project team can also count on ORTQAI as a scientific partner.

Text: Sophie Roulin / Pictures: Guillaume Perret



Joëlle Goyette Pernot

Full Professor UAS- HEIA-FR
-health and comfort in buildings
-heating, ventilation and air-conditioning HVAC

Matias Cesari

Academic Associate UAS- HEIA-FR
-health and comfort in buildings
-well-being and behaviors