Children Exposed to Dangerous Air Quality Near Schools

December 17, 2008

USA Today has launched a series of articles and interactive tools on the dangerous outdoor air quality surrounding many schools. Kudos to the reporters for investigating this critical problem and helping bring attention the environmental health and justice issues facing so many of our schools. I hope you will join me in following this important series.

The articles offer staggering lists of schools – many near industrial plants, others not – where children are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollutants linked to cancer and other serious health problems. It also raises questions about the role of the EPA, school officials, and other regulators in monitoring the environmental safety of the school buildings where children are required by law to spend their days. 

When I learned that the study measured outdoor air quality, my initial reaction was that the air outside of the school would likely not be much different than in other places in the neighborhood. While this was the case in some situations, it was certainly not the case in others. As the article explains:

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. . . .

“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.”

With this in mind, the issue of school siting takes on tremendous importance. School officials have a responsibility to take environmental health considerations — including outdoor air quality — into consideration when deciding where a school should be located.

HSC has been working on school siting issues with the Office of the Lt. Governor of Illinois. We co-hosted listening forums around the state last week, and are encouraging everyone in the school community to submit written comments online. We’re looking forward to continuing the work of developing rigorous school siting guidelines in Illinois and supporting our colleagues who are developing guidelines in other states. We are planning to announce the guidelines at the Sustainable Schools symposium in Feb. 2009.

That said, it is important to remember that issues of outdoor air pollution are not just a school problem but a community problem.  School boards alone cannot solve the problem of highly polluted air in a community.  Parents and school leaders need to work with other leaders throughout their communities to work with regulators to ensure that industries in their neighborhoods are in compliance and that the regulations and permits are protective of children’s health. 

When it is time to decide where to build a school, strict school siting requirements are needed so that there is no possibility that children are exposed to dangerous levels of chemical contamination. 

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires the EPA to develop the nation's first-ever school siting guidelines by June 2009; these guidelines will give state legislatures direction in where schools may be physically located in relationship to toxic contamination sites.  

According to The Center for Health and Environmental Justice (CHEJ) only five states have laws that make it illegal to build a school on a contaminated site. 

Several ways you can take action now on this important issue: 

Stay posted for updates as we continue to work on critical issues related to school siting.