The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools

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An eight-month investigation into air toxicity levels outside America’s schools revealed potentially severe health risks to children that have gone mostly unnoticed by everyone – from local school administrators to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

USA Today has compiled a series of articles, charts and videos, all related to its investigation’s findings, most notably that the air outside 435 schools across the country contains high levels of toxic chemicals, as of 2005 emissions reports.

Reporters used a government model for tracking toxic chemicals that analyzed emissions reports from 20,000 industrial sites in 2005 and compared the data with the sites’ proximity to 127,800 public, private and parochial schools, a search they say the EPA has never conducted. The 435 worst schools all showed higher pollution levels than an Ohio elementary school that was shut down because the Ohio EPA found the risk of getting cancer from exposure to that air was 50 times greater than the normally acceptable level.

Extended exposure to these toxic chemicals can cause respiratory problems, cancer and other diseases, the symptoms of which might not appear for decades, although scientific research on the specific impacts on children does not exist for most of the chemicals.

Part of the problem is that many of these 435 schools – which are spread across 34 states – are located in low-income school districts. Inexpensive construction zones near industrial areas are often the only affordable option for low-income districts. In addition, a Chicago-area school superintendent told USA Today, it’s tough to raise awareness of air pollution in poor areas that face more immediate risks.

“When you start talking about manganese, it doesn’t register with people in poverty,” said Juan Anaya, superintendent of the City of East Chicago school district, who oversees an elementary school surrounded by high levels of the metal manganese. “They have bigger issues to deal with.”

The special report’s website gives users access to their local schools’ air pollution levels with a state-by-state searchable database that yields each school’s national percentile compared with the air toxicity levels of all the nation’s schools. Also available is a U.S. map that pinpoints the exact locations of all 435 “hot spot” schools. In a video on the site, a health expert tells how local authorities can take action in their communities, using the information provided by the index. March 4-10,