"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action."Wingspread Statement, January 15, 1998 (full Wingspread Statement) Expert on Precautionary Principle: Dr. Steven G. Gilbert, www.Toxipedia.org
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USA Today: Air tests reveal elevated levels of toxics around schools
This feature story, found in the December 8th USA Today, outlines the (external) toxic exposures many children receive from local industries in their neighborhood schools. Check out your child's school, with an environmental rating, accessed by state, in the USA Today database. Adding this to the extensive internal IAQ problems in American schools, caused by mold and damp buildings, one can see some compelling reasons why 1/3 of Americans are described by government sources as chronically ill. We know of schools built, deliberately, ontop of toxic sites. Like those in this story, the occupants of thousands of schools suffer from dangerous indoor air quality due to dampness and mold - with no governmental help or legal respite. We ask our readers to contact the writers of this article, to ask for a story on school mold to be added to this series (SMH).
USA TODAY and scientists monitored the air near 95 schools in 30 states and found some schools have pollution levels that could make people sick or increase their risk of cancer if they were exposed to the chemicals for long periods.
By Ron Coddington
Air tests reveal elevated levels of toxics around schools
MIDLAND, Pa. — In this borough of 2,900 in the westernmost part of the state, the steel industry used to be the primary employer. Today, Midland's schools offer the most jobs — and now are beginning to unravel a mystery that could affect the health of their students.
For five days this fall, USA TODAY monitored the air near Midland Elementary-Middle School, a red-brick building blocks from the riverside steel plants that defined the town for generations. It was one of 95 schools in 30 states where the newspaper teamed with scientists at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland to take samples and analyze toxic chemicals in the air.
The highest readings appeared near seven of the schools, including Midland. At those locations, USA TODAY's monitoring showed pollution at levels that could make people sick or significantly increase their risk of cancer if they were exposed to the chemicals for long periods.
Among the chemicals found in the air near the seven schools: the metals manganese and chromium, and the carcinogens benzene and naphthalene, all in concentrations that could be well above U.S. Environmental Protection Agency safety thresholds for long-term exposure.
At 57 more schools, the results showed combinations of chemicals at levels that were lower than at the seven worst locations but still higher than what some states consider acceptable. At about half of these schools — including some along Louisiana's Gulf Coast as well as in affluent suburbs such as McLean, Va., and Lakewood, Colo. — benzene was primarily responsible for the potential health risks. The chemical is often found in refinery emissions and automobile exhaust.
Experts say even small amounts of toxic chemicals can do irreparable harm to children, who breathe more air per pound than adults do, and whose bodies process chemicals differently.
Exposures "may be causing mutations in a child's cells that begin the pathway to cancer," says Philip Landrigan, one of the nation's foremost experts on pediatric medicine and a physician at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
"Those mutations, once they take place, they're hard-wired," Landrigan says. "They may go on to cancer. They may go nowhere. But they certainly put the child at greater risk of cancer, and that risk is life-long."
Regulators usually examine cancer risks by asking how many more cases might result from pollution. If the risk, based on a lifetime of exposure, is less than one additional case per 1 million people, the EPA considers the air safe. But if the risk is higher — for instance, if the risk of an additional cancer exceeds one in 100,000, a level USA TODAY found at 64 schools where it monitored — regulators might work with industries to curb emissions.
"These results suggest that we need to be concerned about what the children are breathing while at school," says Patrick Breysse, a scientist with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who helped oversee USA TODAY's efforts.
Breysse, director of the Center for Childhood Asthma in the Urban Environment at Hopkins, cautions that the results from USA TODAY's monitoring represent only a "snapshot of pollution." He says parents "shouldn't take these results and abandon their schools. But they certainly need to start asking people in authority to find out more."
He says the findings should prompt the government to act "with some sense of urgency" to investigate pollution outside schools where health risks appear to be the greatest. In some cases, that may mean regulators working with industries near schools to cut their emissions, he says. "In extreme cases," he says, "it may mean shutting down or moving schools."
To select where to monitor, USA TODAY used a government computer model that shows how industrial emissions are dispersed throughout the country. About two-thirds of the schools chosen appeared hard-hit by toxic chemicals; the other one-third were in areas where the air seemed relatively clean.
At some schools, USA TODAY's monitoring involved placing charcoal badges near schools to capture toxic chemicals. At other locations, reporters also used pumps and filters that collected samples of metals and other compounds.
In both cases, USA TODAY followed established protocols and used the same equipment employed by many universities and industries to monitor air quality. The monitoring lasted four to seven days, a short amount of time compared with the months-long monitoring that state and federal regulators can do.
Regulators, however, seldom check for toxic chemicals outside schools. "We're trying to show that we can flag some schools based on the limited data collected by USA TODAY," Breysse says. "Now we're calling on the EPA and other health authorities to do it more thoroughly."
That's exactly what is happening in Midland, where USA TODAY's monitoring found high levels of chromium. Airborne chromium can take two forms — one can cause cancer, the other is relatively harmless.
What remains unknown is what type of chromium was in the air. The more dangerous form, known as hexavalent chromium or chromium 6, can be released during a variety of industrial processes, including steelmaking and cement production. It has no odor or taste and is difficult to detect without more sophisticated monitoring.
If the chromium were the more harmful form, the dangers in Midland could rival those found outside Meredith Hitchens Elementary, a Cincinnati-area school where the Ohio EPA concluded the risk of cancer was 50 times higher than what the state considers acceptable. The district closed Hitchens in 2005.
Last year, three companies operating near Midland — a steel mill and a foundry blocks from the school, and a power plant across the Ohio River — filed reports with the EPA that showed combined releases of at least 7,500 pounds of chromium into the air. The EPA doesn't require the companies to say what type of chromium.
Dan Greenfield, a spokesman for Allegheny Ludlum Corp., which runs the steel mill in Midland, says it's "extremely unlikely" that any chromium 6 came from the mill. "We have state-of-the art environmental controls," he says.
A representative of Whemco, which operates the foundry, declined to comment. Ellen Raines, a spokeswoman for FirstEnergy Corp., which runs the power plant, says its emissions are diluted by high smokestacks, and that scrubbers on those stacks trap most of the chromium before it's released.
Monitoring at Midland also showed manganese, a metal that can damage the nervous system, at a higher level than what the EPA says is safe.
The newspaper's findings prompted the district's superintendent to push for action.
On Nov. 19, the day a reporter told him of the high chromium readings, Superintendent Sean Tanner asked the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to put an air monitor at the school. The agency installed one on the roof the next morning. "I wanted something done, and I didn't want to wait," says Tanner, who says he was "just stunned" by USA TODAY's findings. "I thought that was necessary to protect our students, our staff and, ultimately, our community."
Since USA TODAY monitored, slumping demand prompted Allegheny Ludlum to mostly idle its Midland steel mill, Greenfield says. It's not clear when production will fully resume.
Pennsylvania authorities said Thursday that initial air tests for chromium and other airborne metals did not indicate reason for concern. Two days of samples — both taken since the Allegheny Ludlum plant reduced production — showed chromium levels 10 times lower than what USA TODAY detected.
An agency guide on air monitoring notes that results of such monitoring often vary based on the weather, or whether a factory is "operating on one sampling day, but not on another." A spokeswoman for the state's environmental agency, Teresa Candori, says regulators plan to collect samples at Midland for at least six months. Continue to next page...
Page 2 of 2 of USA TODAY's special report on monitoring air quality around schools.
The government routinely monitors for six chemicals, most notably those that cause smog. A report three years ago by the EPA's inspector general highlighted shortcomings in the agency's monitoring for about 180 others, all toxic. It concluded that "many high-risk areas" for chemicals do not have monitors.
In the past decade, for instance, USA TODAY's search of EPA records found only about 3% of the nation's schools were within a mile of a long-term monitor set up to detect hazardous air pollutants. Even fewer — the newspaper identified only 125 of almost 128,000 schools — had monitors within a few blocks.
Although the EPA provides grants for monitoring at locations where pollution models indicate problems, officials say such monitoring is primarily left to each state. The EPA has increased its grants since the inspector general's report, says Robert Meyers, the agency official in charge of air issues. Since 2004 it has spent $37 million on new monitoring stations.
He concedes that those grants — and subsequent decisions on where to monitor — put no emphasis on schools, even though the agency acknowledges that children are particularly susceptible to toxic chemicals.
Despite strict limits on pollution that causes smog, the EPA has no standards for how much of a toxic chemical can be in the air before the agency takes action. That makes assessing dangers children face inexact at best.
"There may have been some lip service about paying attention to children … but they're not putting their money where their mouth is," Melanie Marty, a toxicologist with the California EPA, says of the U.S. EPA. "If we don't know anything, we can't say we're protecting the general population out there, let alone kids."
USA TODAY did not place monitors on school grounds. Rather, reporters, editors and others — including local volunteers and journalists from Denver television station KUSA and local newspapers owned by Gannett, USA TODAY's parent company — found locations that generally were within 100 yards of schools.
At those locations, often homes or businesses, the air would be similar to what was outside the school buildings.
Scientists from Hopkins and Maryland analyzed the samples for about 40 chemicals.
The chemicals might have come from a variety of sources: heavy industries such as refineries and steel mills, smaller businesses that aren't required to report their emissions to the government, gas stations and automobiles. The monitoring could not pinpoint sources.
Benzene levels were especially high outside at least three schools: Jotham W. Wakeman School in Jersey City; Wayne School in Erie, Pa.; and H. Byron Masterson Elementary School in Kennett, Mo. There, benzene levels were high enough that they could cause at least one additional cancer for every 10,000 people exposed throughout their lives, Hopkins found.
Studies have linked benzene to leukemia.
"These are still based on limited data," Breysse cautions. "But they should stimulate further investigation."
Monitoring is key
Other locations appeared less troubling. In Ashland City, Tenn., for instance, the EPA computer model indicated the air at Ashland City Elementary School was rife with manganese. The model ranked it among the very worst schools in the nation for industrial pollutants.
USA TODAY monitored the air twice near the school. Although the snapshot samples aren't definitive, both tests found levels of manganese thousands of times lower than what the model estimated would be in the air there.
Why the vast discrepancy? The EPA model relied on reports submitted by A.O. Smith, a water heater manufacturer in Ashland City. The company reported to the EPA that it released 33,788 pounds of manganese into the air in 2005.
A spokesman for the company, Mark Petrarca, says its emissions reports are accurate but that its manganese is trapped in flakes that usually fall to the shop floor and are moved off the site. Only "trace amounts," he says, would be emitted from the plant.
That's consistent with what USA TODAY found and underscores the need to monitor before concluding that the air outside any school is dangerous.
Even with the monitoring by USA TODAY, Hopkins' Breysse sees merit in checking further.
Others echo his assessment. USA TODAY's monitoring "really is a first snapshot, and you need to see the movie to see the whole thing," says Paul Koval, a toxicologist with the Ohio EPA who spearheaded the seven-month monitoring effort that led to the closure of Hitchens.
"Discovering what's happening in your community," he says, "still needs to be done, no matter what."
USA TODAY monitored air quality at 95 schools across the nation, under the supervision of Patrick Breysse of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Amir Sapkota of the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
Fieldwork was done by Dan Reed, Kevin McCoy, Rick Jervis, Chris Woodyard, Dennis Cauchon, Judy Keen, Larry Copeland, Rick Hampson, Byron Acohido, Haya El Nasser, Mike Tsukamoto, David Lindsey, Noah Grynberg, Nicholas Persac and Linda Mathews of USA TODAY; Nicole Vap, Anna Hewson and Byron Reed of KUSA-TV in Denver; James Bruggers, Stefanie Frith, Tracy Loew, David Castellon, Brian Passey, Ben Jones, Jennie Coughlin, Kathleen Gray, Tim Evans, Lori Kurtzman, Jeff Martin, Adam Silverman, Greg Latshaw, Grant Schulte, Ron Barnett, Gunnar Olson, Dirk VanderHart, Kevin Paulk, Clay Carey, Maureen Milford and Dan Nakaso of Gannett newspapers; and local volunteers Deborah Corcoran, R.E. Corcoran, Michael Corcoran, James Mathews, Donald DeWees, Maureen Gallagher and Pauline Cross.
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