Sunday, 03 April 2016 16:50

Cleaner Air for Better Learning

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Few institutions in this country proactively deal with air pollution. The International School of Ho Chi Minh City is one that does


We’re sat in Adrian Watts’ office overlooking the main building and play areas of his school. Surveying his domain — he is the Head of the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC) — he shows me the Air Quality Index (AQI) card system in his window. At the moment the card displayed is amber, meaning that the air pollution has hit between 100,000 and 150,000 particles per litre. Based on World Health Organisation (WHO) measurements, this level of air pollution is ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ — children and adults with breathing issues, such as asthma, need to be careful when they’re outdoors.


“We have this card system in three places in the school,” he explains. “We use three colours; red, green and amber. It means that everyone round the school knows where we are. Green is considered safe, but when it goes into the red zone, which is dangerous, I stop play outside.”


That Vietnam’s major cities face a growing battle with air pollution is now becoming documented. However, it’s rare that anyone takes steps to minimize its impact. That is what Adrian Watts has done for ISHCMC.


Clean Air, Indoors and Out


Adrian’s initiative goes much further than just checking the outdoor air quality. Over the past 18 months, the school has introduced standalone air purifying machines throughout their early years area right through to Grade 1. ISHCMC has also recently added the system to their multi-purpose room, which is used for drama and sport. Next year this will be extended to the rest of the primary school.


On completion of ISHCMC’s new secondary campus close to Saigon Bridge in 2017, the new building will also have a purpose-built air filtration system to ensure that, as Adrian explains, indoor air pollution will be kept below “WHO levels — which is 35,000 particles per litre”.


Using what is essentially a huge box with three filters, the air will be purified at the point of entry, before it is allowed to flow around the school. The pressure inside the school will be higher than the pressure outside, so when doors are opened, the air will flow outwards rather than inwards. This way the minimum amount of pollutants will enter the building.


“It’s part of our mission to provide a healthy environment to energize our students,” he explains. “If the air’s not clear then it affects thinking and the children’s ability to enjoy their environment.”


Indeed, studies have shown that bad indoor air quality at schools can result in poor concentration, lethargy, headaches and even nausea. Clean air in the classroom is therefore critical to enabling students to perform to the best of their ability.


A Growing Concern


As we begin to talk, I ask Adrian why the installation of air-purifying systems has so far focused on younger children.


“The damage [from air pollution] is done hugely when kids are very young because they’re growing,” he says. “So the absorption of the small particles into their bloodstream then gets pushed out into the rest of their bodies. As you get older you still absorb the particles, but the impact on you growing is less.”


Adrian cites Mexico City as an example (until 20 years ago it was the most polluted city in the world) where back in the 1990s pollution was thought to cause 1,000 deaths and 35,000 hospitalizations a year. During this period, instances of acute childhood leukaemia rose sharply as did respiratory disease in children aged one to four.


Now, says Adrian, with the horrific air quality problems in Beijing and Shanghai, China faces a similar problem. It’s become so bad that many “expat families have withdrawn from Beijing,” he says.


He adds: “In Beijing, international companies now locate single people there or people with no children. So, it’s definitely something that multinationals consider now, as to how they strategically plan for the future.”


More than Air Quality


We leave Adrian’s office and head to the Early Explorer and Kindergarten area, where he shows me the air purification machines. We take a reading. The air quality here is at around only 30,000 particles per litre. Outside the campus this number rises to 110,000 and the AQI cards are at amber.


“These systems do more than just purify the air,” says Adrian. “They take out all the spores and all the other things in the air like bacteria, mould and spores that create damp. So, they create a healthier environment.”


He adds: “If I had a young child then ISHCMC would be my first school choice for them because having your child in clean air when they’re very young is essential.”


To find out more about the International School Ho Chi Minh City, visit or call (08) 3898 9100

Last modified on Sunday, 03 April 2016 17:00
Nick Ross

Chief editor and co-founder of Word Vietnam, Nick Ross was born in the humble city of London before moving to the less humble climes of Vietnam. His wanderings have taken him to definitely not enough corners of the globe, but being a constant optimist, he still has hopes.

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