Breath of Clarity

Poor Air Quality at Los Angeles Inner City Schools


The classrooms of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in low-income neighborhoods with predominantly Latino, African American, and Asian Pacific Islander children are filled with poor air quality resulting in respiratory hazard which leads to low academic performance relative to students in healthier environments. The poor air quality is due to a variety of factors inherent to urban areas such as proximity of schools to freeways and busy roads, exposure to diesel emissions from school buses, and other nearby pollution sources in the area. Figure 1 reveals a geographical distribution of the statewide problem (Sadd et al. 2005). The problem is expected to intensify considering there is overcrowding in California’s urban schools as well as emerging strategy of more compact residential and commercial development in the state (Sadd et al. 2005). The issue is one of environmental injustice which is “commonly evoked in situations in which identifiable minorities have been exposed, deliberately or not, to disproportionate health or safety risks from a known hazard” (Rosenbaum 2019). Figure 2 illustrates schools facing respiratory hazard have a high percentage of low-income, minority students (Sadd et al. 2005). Moreover, Figure 3 depicts the relationship between respiratory hazard and API scores of Los Angeles County (Sadd et al. 2005). Historically, the demographic of students facing the greatest challenges brought by air pollution stem from systematic racism.

Still, there are policy responses capable of limiting the air pollution’s impact on students. Evidence suggests the portable classrooms often placed in overcrowded facilities suffer from lower air quality than permanent facilities (Sadd et al. 2005). One solution is to replace old, portable classrooms with updated permanent classrooms to improve the indoor air quality.

Further, California’s ratio of students to nurses is more than three times the level recommended by the National Association of School Nurses, and nursing positions are often cut back by school boards facing limited budgets (Sadd et al. 2005). A second proposed solution is to enhance school-based health services. Both a variety of governmental groups, as well as non- governmental organizations, are crucial to combat the injustice.


Replacing heavily exposed portable classrooms with new, carefully constructed permanent classrooms is a step towards improving the air quality at struggling schools. In terms of stakeholders involved, at the beginning of the Obama administration, “a very careful review of EPA’s implementation concluded that the EPA had repeatedly and systematically failed to incorporate environmental justice considerations into core programs and decision-making” (Rosenbaum 2019). However, the Environmental Protection Agency has recently provided leadership in the form of its Tools for Schools for Indoor Air Quality program (Sadd et al. 2005). Additionally, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools is a collection of state agencies and civic leaders who provide guidelines for energy- efficient and healthy schools, including specific recommendations for HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air condition) systems that can improve indoor air quality (Sadd et al. 2005). Further, this year in the midst of COVID-19, New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich introduced the Keeping Schools Safe Act for the purpose of improving indoor air quality at high-need elementary and secondary schools (Martin Heinrich 2020). He is a phenomenal stakeholder to lead the way in generating support of funding to enhance ventilation systems at the older, overburdened schools.

The second proposed solution is to improve the quality of health services in schools. It is crucial to use the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, as well as the California Air Resources Board, to gather data needed showing the need for a policy that increases funding of nursing staff from the State of California. Further, specialized environmental justice media, such as the Inner City Press’s Environmental Justice Reporter, has a function in placing the need for increased school health services funding onto the agenda (Rosenbaum 2019). Ultimately, the LAUSD is a crucial stakeholder as it is holds large scale recruitment events and is looking to partner with nurse training programs to offer clinical rotations in school settings (Wagner 2019).


Martin Heinrich. 2020. “Heinrich Introduces Bill To Improve School Air Quality”. Accessed October 16 2020. introduces-bill-to-improve-school-air-quality

Rosenbaum, Walter A. 2019. Environmental Politics and Policy. 11th Ed., Thousand Oaks, CQ. Sadd, James, Manuel Pastor, Jr. and Rachel Morello-Frosch. 2005. “Reading, Writing, and

Breathing Schools, Air Toxics, and Environmental Justice in California”. University of California Santa Cruz. Accessed October 16 2020. ej_Reading_Writing_Breathing.pdf

Wagner, Tara Lynn. 2019. “LAUSD Struggling To Fill School Nurse Vacancies”. Spectrum News. Accessed October 16 2020. 2019/09/24/lausd-struggling-to-fill-school-nurse-vacancies