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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Industrial Pollution Goes to School

Air Date: Week of

USA Today reporter Blake Morrison.

Parents might be surprised to find that the A-plus school their children attend is getting a failing grade in air quality. USA Today produced a new way of ranking public, private, and parochial schools: proximity to industrial air pollution. Blake Morrison, the principle reporter of the newspaper’s special report, tells host Steve Curwood what's in the air around America's schools.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Before sending their children off to a new school, parents often check the school's rankings -- average test scores, graduation rates, class sizes. After all, children's minds are like sponges -- the better their education, the more they’ll learn.

Well, children's bodies are also like sponges -- they breathe in more air proportionally than adults, leaving their developing organs more vulnerable to the effects of airborne toxic chemicals. With this is mind, USA Today recently spent eight months developing a new school ranking: proximity to industrial air pollution.

Blake Morrison was the principal reporter on the newspaper’s special series, "The Smokestack Effect." He joins me now - Mr. Morrison, welcome to Living on Earth.

MORRISON: Thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: So you looked at some 128,000 public, private and parochial schools. You looked to see how they rank on industrial air pollution. Tell me, what did you find? Where are America’s most toxic schools?

MORRISON: Well one of the things that really was intriguing to us was that the data we used, the model that the EPA developed creates essentially a ranking system. And one of the things that it does is it prioritizes one site against another. So it really gives you a true comparison between two places. What it doesn’t do is allow you to assess the risk at those particular locations. But what we found was a school outside of Cincinnati, Ohio that was shut down about three years ago after the Ohio EPA did long term monitoring there. And they found there that the risk of cancer was about fifty times what the state considered acceptable. We found that that school ranked about 435 out of the 128,000 or so schools we looked at. Which meant that there were about 430 some schools where the model predicted that the air was actually worse than the school that was shut down in Ohio.

CURWOOD: Let’s listen to a clip of some video that you made. A newspaper, yes, USA Today made some video. This is Matt Becker. He’s a sixteen-year-old student at Meredith Hitchens Elementary School. And his mother talking about how he learned that he had cancer.

BECKER: Instead of using the word tumor, they used the word mass.

MATT BECKER’S MOTHER: So, of course, my mind goes to tumor, goes to cancer. I just immediately started crying.

BECKER: My mom started crying right there. My dad just put his head down. I had a tumor that was about eight inches by six inches right there in the center of my chest, behind my chest bone. I was sitting there in my bed while they were talking, like, holding it in, trying not to cry. And they just – the tears just came out when everybody left. And I told my grandma that, you know, I don’t want to die.

MORRISON: Well Matt was an interesting case. He actually didn’t attend Meredith Hitchens, but lived about two miles from Hitchens and he was diagnosed with what’s called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma a couple years ago. And they don’t know what caused it. Childhood cancers are often pretty mysterious things. But one of the things that was clear is that he was breathing some of the same air that the Ohio EPA tested near Meredith Hitchens. It was air that had a couple of compounds in that the state considered carcinogenic. One is acrylonitrile and the other is 1,3-Butadiene. And the fear that his parents have is that because of where he went to school and because of where they live, that he might have been breathing the kind of air that would have caused his cancer. You know, the effect that childhood cancer has on folks like Matt is obviously profound. His big fear now is that the chemotherapy may have left him sterile. And the idea that someone so young has such a concern, such a fear, really underscores how insidious these kinds of threats might be.

CURWOOD: We know now of course that these chemicals, of course, pose risks beyond cancer or death, as horrible as those are. What were you able to find along those lines in your research?

MORRISON: Well, you know, there’s been quite a bit of scientific study done now that takes a look at increasing asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, the kinds of things that toxic chemicals might cause in children. And what is underscored by the people who know the most about this, is really how little we know. We see the increase in incidence of these kinds of things, and what we hear from the experts in places like Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for instance, is that once kids are exposed to these kinds of things, some of these changes may be essentially hardwired. And you might not even see it for years or decades later.

CURWOOD: What is relationship to income and ethnicity for these schools in the most polluted locations? Do they tend to be poor communities, tend to be blacker or more Chicano communities?

USA Today reporter Blake Morrison.

MORRISON: Well, you know, it is across the board on some levels. But one of the ones that we wrote about which I think sort of exemplifies one of the problems, is a place in East Chicago, Indiana. It’s obvious to everybody there that the air isn’t good. What they don’t know is how bad it might be. And what we found from the model, for instance, was outside a couple of elementary schools there were levels of manganese that were coming up in the EPA model as a dozen times higher than what’s safe. Now manganese is often responsible for learning disabilities. And if you have high dosages – doses of it, you might have situations where students have trouble learning and processing and so on. That is, according to the superintendent, one of the most impoverished areas of all Indiana.

CURWOOD: Now, I have a computer open here. And I’ve gone to the USA Today website where you can search for a school and see it’s industrial air pollution ranking. Let’s take a look at the Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in East Chicago, Indiana, and you see 92% of toxicity comes from manganese, this heavy metal, and another 3% from lead, predicted, cadmium. It looks like there’s a bunch of steel plants and quite a bit of industrial activities. The school is surrounded by this activity.

MORRISON: Yeah. It looks like it’s essentially a bull’s eye. And you have the pollution sort of coming from all directions it looks like from, you know, the overhead shot. And if you go to smokestack.usatoday.com, you can actually call that up and see essentially a map that puts in proximity the school and the industrial polluters and be able to see the comparison.

CURWOOD: Of course, this is just the industrial level pollution in the area.

MORRISON: Yeah, and only the industrial pollution from some of the biggest polluters in the country. Now the last EPA assessment done on this suggests that industrial pollution accounts for maybe 15-20% of the toxic chemicals in the air. So if you think about that, what that means is that, what this database shows you is essentially the tip of the toxic iceberg. It gives you an indication of the pollution that may be in the air from industrial sources, but even so, that’s just a fraction of the toxic chemicals that might be at that location. Auto exhaust, bus or truck exhaust, those are all things that factor significantly when you’re talking about proximity for instance to major roadways.

CURWOOD: Blake Morrison is the principle reporter for the USA Today series “The Smoke Stack Effect: Toxic Air in America’s School”. Mr. Morrison, thank you.

MORRISON: Thank you so much, Steve.

CURWOOD: For more details – go to our website, loe.org

[Thievery Corporation “Hong Kong Triad” from The Mirror Conspiracy (ESL Records 2000)]



To find out how a school ranks, in terms of exposure to industrial pollutants check out USA Today’s database and report

Click here to for the EPA’s latest information on toxic chemical releases by certain industries


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