December 8, 2008

USAToday took a look at schools near toxic hot spots - something the EPA has never done, and what they found isn't reassuring:

The result: a ranking of 127,800 public, private and parochial schools based on the concentrations and health hazards of chemicals likely to be in the air outside. The model's most recent version used emissions reports filed by 20,000 industrial sites in 2005, the year Hitchens closed.

The potential problems that emerged were widespread, insidious and largely unaddressed:

• At Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in East Chicago, Ind., the model indicated levels of manganese more than a dozen times higher than what the government considers safe. The metal can cause mental and emotional problems after long exposures. Three factories within blocks of the school — located in one of the most impoverished areas of the state — combined to release more than 6 tons of it in a single year.

"When you start talking about manganese, it doesn't register with people in poverty," says Juan Anaya, superintendent of the School City of East Chicago district. "They have bigger issues to deal with."

• The middle school in Follansbee, W.Va., sits close to a cluster of plants that churn out tens of thousands of pounds of toxic gases and metals a year.

• In Huntington, W.Va., data showed the air outside Highlawn Elementary School had high levels of nickel, which can harm lungs and cause cancer.

• At San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park, Texas, data indicated carcinogens at levels even higher than the readings that prompted the shutdown of Hitchens. A recent University of Texas study showed an "association" between an increased risk of childhood cancer and proximity to the Houston Ship Channel, about 2 miles from the school.

The 435 schools that ranked worst weren't confined to industrial centers. Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania had the highest numbers, but the worst schools extended from the East Coast to the West, in 170 cities across 34 states, USA TODAY found.

The worst effects seem to be limited to schools:

The likely exposures weren't simply the product of living in a part of town where pollution is heavy. In thousands of cases, the air appeared to be better in the neighborhoods where children lived than at the schools they attended, USA TODAY found.

At about 16,500 schools, the air outside the schools was at least twice as toxic as the air at a typical location in the school district. At 3,000 of those schools, air outside the buildings was at least 10 times as toxic.

But in all of these cases, precisely what risk children face remains a mystery — to parents, school officials and government regulators responsible for protecting public health. No laws or regulations require the sort of air monitoring that would tell them.

"There are health and safety standards for adults in the workplace, but there are no standards for children at schools," says Ramona Trovato, the former director of the EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection, who has since retired from the agency. "If a parent complains, there's no law that requires anybody to do anything. It's beyond belief."

Here's hoping an Obama administration has enough money to remedy situations like this. It will be nice to have the grownups in charge.

My neighborhood school tested in the 5th percentile, with only 5,860 schools across the nation having worse air. Oy. Look for your school here.

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