USA Today Reports: “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools

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Recently USA Today issued an eye opening special report on the toxicity of the air in schools across the country. The results should be read by every parent in America, as well as politicians.

The series shares which schools are toxic hot spots, making children at those school particularly vulnerable to air borne toxic chemicals.

A database of nearly 128,000 schools featured online at how schools rank in their exposure to cancer-causing and other toxic chemicals. According to a USA Today press release, “The database is modeled on information reported to the government by 20,000 industrial plants. The series also offers information on how Americans can learn more about the air outside their schools and do something about it.”

This is critical. Thankfully this report caught the eye of Barbara Boxer, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who pledged to “do what I have to do” to ensure monitoring across the U.S. Boxer calls lack of monitoring a “shocking story of child neglect.”

The site put together by USA Today shares many stories related to this, video clips, and a searchable map and database. This is an invaluable resource for parents, school officials, and politicians.

In one of the first report, USA TODAY compares its data to what the State of Ohio found after it monitored the air outside Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Addyston, a Cincinnati suburb. According to USA Today, “In 2005, Hitchens was closed after the Ohio EPA found levels of carcinogens 50 times higher than what the state considers acceptable. The chemicals were emitted from a plastics plant across the street from the school. USA TODAY found that the air outside 435 schools nationwide may be even worse than the air was outside Hitchens when it closed. Those schools, identified by the government’s own data and model, extended from East Coast to West, in 170 cities across 34 states.” (bold added by me-)

The site also features an extensive question and answer section. You can also cut to the chase and look at this map of the schools with the highest rates of toxic chemicals in the air.

Check out your state’s results. I was surprised to find results for even my small school in rural Vermont (ranked in the 98th percentiles, which is very good). What was surprising, though, was how even some schools in Vermont, which are pretty removed from direct industrial pollution (not so for acid rain from the midwest), ranked in the top third for the most polluted air, with a concentration found in the Rutland area. Shockingly, one school in Rutland (Mount Saint Joseph Academy) rated in the 14th percentile, meaning the air is worse at 17,430 schools across the nation out of 130,000.

Here are some of the problems that USA discovered in schools with the most toxic air:

(from the USA Today report)

“Among the hot spots that might justify monitoring, the government’s model identified:

• Deer Park, Texas, near Houston, where students at elementary, middle and high schools faced dangerously high levels of butadiene, a carcinogen, and other gases from petrochemical plants on the Houston Ship Channel.

• Lucedale, Miss., where kids at five schools faced air with high levels of chromium, a metal that, in one form, has been linked to cancer.

• Oro Grande Elementary in California’s Mojave Desert, where students breathed a variety of metals, including chromium, manganese and lead.”

And right now there isn’t that much we can do about it. According to USA Today, ‘”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.”‘

This report is a call to action to improve the air quality for our children everywhere. The effects of many of these chemicals are unknown on our most vulnerable population. I’ll be on the lookout for ways to support legislation to require that manufacturers clean the air outside our nation’s schools and everywhere else.

In the closing paragraphs, the article gives some advice from an expert about what to do. ‘”At Meredith Hitchens, the Ohio EPA concluded the risk of getting cancer was 50 times what the state considers acceptable. If a school is one of the 435 where the model indicates air worse than at Hitchens, what should parents do?

If it were me, I would be going to the school board. I would be going to my legislators and raising Cain,” says Marty, the California toxicologist.’

That is exactly what we should do. There is no reason that children should be getting cancer at younger and younger ages, and that the very act of going to school should be threatening their health.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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