EPA Aims Air-Check Plan at 62 Schools

04/06/2009 |

USA TODAY
Blake Morrison and Brad Heath
April 02, 2009

In its most sweeping effort to determine whether toxic chemicals permeate the air that school children breathe, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce plans today to monitor the air outside 62 schools in 22 states. Texas and Ohio have the most schools on the list, with seven each; Pennsylvania has six.

The plan will cost about $2.25 million, and includes taking samples outside schools in small towns, such as Story City, IA, and Toledo, OR, and in large cities, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston. It comes in response to a USA TODAY investigation that used the government’s own data to identify schools that appear to be in toxic hotspots.

“Your stories raised important questions that merit investigation, and that’s what we’re doing,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Monday. "We want parents to know that the places their children live, play, and learn are safe.”

USA TODAY’s investigation, published in December, used a government computer simulation that showed at least 435 schools where the air outside appeared to be more toxic than the air outside Meredith Hitchens Elementary, an Ohio school closed in 2005. At Hitchens, the Ohio EPA found levels of carcinogens 50-times above what the state considered acceptable.

Children are especially susceptible to toxic chemicals; they breathe more air in proportion to their weight than do adults, and their bodies are still developing. Long exposures to some chemicals can exacerbate asthma, trigger learning disabilities, or lead to cancer years later.

EPA Spokeswoman Adora Andy says the agency also used computer modeling, information from state and local air agencies, and USAITODAY’s findings to choose the 62 schools.

Based on the model USA TODAY used, 28 of the 62 schools appeared to have air more toxic than the air outside the Ohio school that was shut down. Outside others on the EPA list, the model indicated fewer problems. At Enterprise Elementary in Enterprise, MS, for instance, the government model shows less exposure to industrial pollution than at 81 percent of the rest of the nation’s schools.

Some of the schools, such as Soto Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, are in urban areas close to major roadways, where pollution from industries and automobiles might be most pronounced. The Soto Street school lies within a few blocks of three freeways.

Monitoring will begin as early as mid-April and be “phased in over the next 3 months,” Andy says. She says regulators will sample for gases, such as benzene, and particulates, such as hexavalent chromium, both of which are carcinogens. Monitoring will last at least 60 days. Based on what is found, Andy says the agency will evaluate the health risks students at each site might face.


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