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Creating Healthy Environments for Children & Teachers In Schools Across New Jersey

First in the Series: How Rutgers Continuing Professional Education Helps Public Employees Serve New Jersey’s Municipalities


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By Bill Swayze

Arthur Pierfy is a lot like a pulmonologist. Air flow is his forte. His patients aren’t people, however. Public schools buildings are.

He's is an indoor air quality expert who knows how buildings breathe. That makes his role in the local school district crucial. If he doesn’t do his job, teachers and students often can't do theirs.

Park Playground

School IAQ expert, Art Pierfy, was presented the National Connector Award by EPA representatives in 2010. L-R: Michael DeBonis, Larainne Koehler, Art Pierfy, Mike Flynn. Credit: Photo courtesy of the US-EPA

Pierfy, the facilities manager for the Rockaway Township Board of Education for the last four years, attributes much of his success to training from the Eastern Regional Radon Training Center (ERRTC) at Rutgers University’s Office of Continuing Professional Education. He began his career in 1986 and after eight years of taking the office’s training programs on indoor air quality (IAQ) standards and advancements, Pierfy began passing on his knowledge, teaching with the Rutgers’ IAQ aficionados who run a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded IAQ Tools For Schools program.

Students benefit from improved indoor air quality.

When indoor air quality is improved,schools also see a number of performance improvements for both students and teachers.

“I’ve always been interested in air quality. The things that make a building function,” he said. “When there is an indoor air quality problem, it is my problem. My job is to provide a safe learning environment for the teachers and our kids. That’s what I do and I take pride in that.”

That hasn’t gone unnoticed. So impressed with Pierfy’s work throughout New Jersey, the EPA presented him with the 2010 National Connector Award. The award is given to innovative individuals who improve indoor air quality in their own schools and help other districts do the same.

Pierfy, 59, is among the thousands of public employees who enroll each year in the university’s continuing professional education training programs to enable them to help their municipalities whittle expenses, save taxpayer dollars and improve services. That’s especially critical in today’s tight fiscal times as town halls across the state are struggling to do more with less money and manpower.

“Art is the go-to guy when you are looking for real-world IAQ management solutions. He has seen and heard it all working with many different designated IAQ officials throughout the state,” said David Breeding, the Rutgers’ program coordinator who manages the EPA IAQ grant. “He views his role as more than caring for buildings, it's about safeguarding and protecting the school children and their teachers.”

The IAQ Tools For Schools program equips facility managers with the knowledge and tools to identify, rectify and monitor air quality problems in schools. Poor indoor air quality causes a host of health problems—from sore throats, fatigue, irritability, burning eyes and nausea as well as increased risk of spreading respiratory illness and long-term issues like allergies and asthma – all of which results in increased absenteeism.

"Art is the go-to guy when you are looking for real IAQ management solutions."

-Rutgers Program Coordinator David Breeding on Art Pierfy

What may be more surprising to some is that poor IAQ is also associated with lower academic performance and increased drop-out rates. So when facilities managers like Art Pierfy work to improve school IAQ — either through increased outdoor air ventilation rates or removal of pollution sources — better health is only one benefit; schools also see a number of performance improvements for both children and adults, from improved scores on standardized tests and increases in productivity to greater speed on school work and better concentration and recall. In one study, students in classrooms with higher outdoor air ventilation rates scored 14 to 15 percent better than their peers in more poorly ventilated classrooms.

Unfortunately, when budgets are tight, administrators often view school maintenance as an expense they can afford cut without impacting academics, but numerous studies show otherwise. That’s where creative, hard-working municipal employees like Pierfy make a real difference.

Pierfy and others have organized workshops, amassed training materials and implemented several successful state-wide initiatives to help managers properly handle IAQ concerns. He adapted a school environment IAQ checklist for assessing and addressing environmental complaints. The checklist is distributed at statewide training events and many of New Jersey's 613 school districts use the document to meet their IAQ investigative needs.

Pierfy uses that checklist often to help him solve his share of mysteries over the years, most recently the case of the mysterious sweet pancake syrup smell in one of his buildings in Rockaway Township. Some teachers and students complained. Some got sick.

Undeterred by the lack of clues being generated by his methodic IAQ investigative procedure, Art conducted an additional building walkthrough that yielded some key evidence from none other than a first grade student. This perceptive and sensitive child asked Art if pancakes were being served for lunch. Knowing this was not the case, the comment nevertheless helped Art clue in on the origin of the sweet smell; it was a cleaning spray product used by a teacher’s aide.

“When it comes to an IAQ problem, there always is an answer. You have to get on these problems right away and never dismiss the complainers,” Pierfy said. “You have to approach problems methodically. Here is the complaint. Here is the remediation. Here is the result.”

LEARN MORE

For more information about the Eastern Regional Radon Training Center (ERRTC) at Rutgers, please visit www.cpe.rutgers.edu/programs/radon_indoor_air_quality.html or contact Casey Sky Noon, at 848-932-7250 or via email: radon@njaes.rutgers.edu.