Urban Schools Near Industries to Be Monitored for Air Toxics

WASHINGTON, DC, March 2, 2009 (ENS) – Lisa Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said today that the agency will begin a new initiative to measure levels of air contamination near many schools across the country, particularly those located near large industries and in urban areas.

The $2.25 million initiative will be the first to focus on air pollution near schools. Directed by the EPA, the monitoring will be conducted by state and local governments. Some states have already begun monitoring.

“I’m a mother first, and like all parents, I want to be sure my children are breathing healthy air at school,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “Questions have been raised about air quality around some U.S. schools, and those questions merit investigation.”

The questions Jackson refers to were raised in December 2008, by the newspaper “USA Today,” which published a ranking of the air quality around 127,800 public, private and parochial schools based on the concentrations and health hazards of chemicals likely to be in the air outside.

Using the EPA’s computer model that predicts the path of toxic chemicals released by thousands of companies, reporters spent eight months examining the impact of industrial pollution on the air outside schools. They fed into the model emissions reports filed by 20,000 industrial sites in 2005.

San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park, Texas, near Houston. Students at schools in this town face high levels of butadiene, a carcinogen, and other gases from petrochemical plants on the Houston Ship Channel. (Photo courtesy Deer Park Independent School District)

The analysis showed that many schools are in toxic hot spots near factories that emit hazardous amounts of toxic gases and metals.

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on January 14, Jackson promised committee chair Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, that she would prepare a plan to address high pollution levels near schools as one of her top priorities after taking office.

Senator Boxer said today, “I am so pleased that EPA Administrator Jackson has announced a plan to test schools for toxic air pollution. I vowed that schools at risk would be tested when this threat to our children’s health was exposed in a recent investigation, and I asked Administrator Jackson to promise to take immediate action in her recent confirmation hearing. That promise has been kept.”

“Children are our future,” said Boxer, “and we need to ensure they have a safe and healthy one.”

Jackson said the EPA will work with states, tribes, and local communities to ensure that monitors are rapidly deployed to get high-quality data and to share the results with American families.

“EPA will work quickly to make assessments and take swift action where necessary,” Jackson said today. “Our job is to protect the American public where they live, work and play – and that certainly includes protecting schoolchildren where they learn.”

This partnership will help EPA maximize its monitoring and analytical capabilities to develop a clearer picture of any potential risks to children from toxic air pollution, Jackson said, adding, “This action is particularly critical in some low-income areas, which are sometimes disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation.”

From 1990 to 2005, emissions of air toxics in the United States declined 41 percent, according to EPA data.

But levels of air toxics can vary widely from place to place depending upon a number of factors including the amount and types of industry nearby, proximity to heavily traveled or congested roadways, and weather patterns.

The monitors will focus on chemicals that are known to cause cancer, respiratory and neurological problems in children, who are more vulnerable than adults because they are still developing. Exposures to toxic chemicals at critical periods of development can cause damage to the nervous system, reproductive organs and behavioral problems.

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