TOXICS:

EPA to test air quality near schools

U.S. EPA today announced new testing of air pollution near schools, marking the first time the agency will take a systematic approach to identifying facilities with potentially dangerous air quality.

The plan calls for regulators to identify up to 100 schools where pollution could pose significant health risks. Testing is expected to begin within 30 days, the agency said, and the monitoring will be conducted primarily by state and local governments, and directed by EPA.

The agency also plans to work with communities to make sure that the results of the data are made available to the public, which it says will "maximize its monitoring and analytical capabilities to develop a clearer picture of any potential risks to children from toxic air pollution." This will be particularly useful in some low-income areas, EPA said.

The issue of toxic air pollution was first raised after USA Today tested schools in 34 states and found many had toxic chemicals in the air at levels that could pose health risks. Using a government computer simulation to identify schools in potential toxic hot spots, the paper found that about 20,000 schools -- one out of every six -- are within a half-mile of a major industrial plant.

EPA has never used its own computer modeling to determine air pollution levels around schools (Greenwire, Dec. 22, 2008).

Responding to the report, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson pledged at her confirmation hearing last month to act on the data within 30 days of her confirmation.

"Questions have been raised about air quality around some U.S. schools, and those questions merit investigation," Jackson said in a statement. "EPA will work quickly to make assessments and take swift action where necessary."

Children are more susceptible to toxic chemicals because their brains and reproductive systems are still developing, and their bodies may not metabolize and excrete the chemicals as quickly as adults' bodies. They also breathe more air relative to their body weight than do adults.

There has been growing concern about the safety of air quality surrounding the nation's schools as people become more aware of neighboring plants and infrastructure facilities that emit toxic chemicals into the air.

For example, one in three public schools is in an "air pollution danger zone" -- within 400 meters of major highways that consistently serve as main truck and traffic routes, according to a report last year from the University of Cincinnati.

"This is a major public health concern that should be given serious consideration in future urban development, transportation planning and environmental policies," said Sergey Grinshpun, the study's lead research and a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati.