environmental protection air quality industrial pollution students

Did Newspaper Use Outdated Data, Improper Modeling Tool?

Kids breathing school air raise their risk of asthma and cancer

We could switch to technology that does not pollute. We’d make the switch smoothly if we let geonomics pave the way. That is: (1) lose subsidies, especially those that prop up dirty technology; (2) lose taxes, since on profits they deter R&D and on wages they deter hiring people to do the conversion; (3) collect the values of sites and resources to end speculation in metro land and in petroleum; and (4) from surplus public revenue, disburse a dividend to the citizenry, empowering them to do without dirty jobs. Meanwhile, at least admit to and take the measure of the pollution problem. This 2008 press release is from the Pennsylvania DEP of Dec 10, responding to a five-part series by USA Today.

by PA DEP and by USA Today

USA TODAY took "snapshot" air samples outside 95 schools, including six in Pennsylvania. The paper provided the results of its testing to the PA Department of Environmental Protection, which will analyze those results and conduct its own testing at the schools.

The PA DEP plans to work with school administrators and county-level agencies to measure air quality near eight schools across the state as it further evaluates the test results by USA TODAY.

In a series of articles this week, the newspaper used data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 to analyze exposure to industrial pollution at 128,000 schools across the country. The 435 schools that ranked worst weren't confined to industrial centers. Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania had the highest numbers, but the worst schools extended from the East Coast to the West, in 170 cities across 34 states.

USA TODAY found that factories, chemical plants, and other industries provide the money from jobs and taxes that circulates locally. The industries and the schools nearby often have co-existed for decades. For just as long, residents in cities large and small have tried to accept -- or simply ignore -- the tradeoffs: air pollution that leads to breathing problems or worse.

The stories cited five Pennsylvania schools where the newspaper's test showed elevated levels of pollutants and identified 38 others that it calculated were located in high-pollution zones based on EPA data. Acting DEP Secretary John Hanger said, "Children are especially vulnerable to air borne pollution as they take in more air as a percentage of their body weight than adults. Because of this, DEP has worked diligently to improve air quality beyond federal limits to achieve greater success in protecting our citizens.

Also, children’s bodies are still developing. Based on the time they spend at school, their exposures could last for years but the impact might not become clear for decades.

That was the case in Port Neches, Texas, where more than two dozen former students of Port Neches-Groves High School have been diagnosed with cancer several years after they graduated. So far, 17 have reached legal settlements with petrochemical plants located less than a mile from the school. In court filings, the plants' operators had denied they were to blame for the illnesses.

PA DEP had already begun testing the air quality around one of the schools mentioned, Midland Elementary-Middle School in Beaver County, before the stories were published. So far tests have not detected elevated levels of chromium as USA TODAY reported its testing had found. DEP began testing at Midland on Nov. 24 and will continue sampling for at least six months.

Hanger added that while DEP is committed to monitoring the levels through additional testing, its initial evaluation of the newspaper's methodology found an instance where outdated Toxic Release Inventory data was used, consequently inflating the level of pollution estimated to be around two Philadelphia area schools.

Hanger also concurred with the EPA's assessment that the modeling tool used by USA TODAY was inappropriate for this kind of analysis. The Risk Screening Environmental Indicators model that was used is designed for point sources and fails to take into account mobile sources that can greatly elevate health risks, so the situation could be worse than measured.

The rapid response by Pennsylvania has not been typical of bureaucracy. Regulatory responses, even slow ones, remain more the exception than the rule -- especially at schools. Children's health experts have tried, with limited success, to push the EPA to make better use of its own tools.

An EPA advisory committee called the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee is composed of 30 experts from industry, state governments, academia, and advocacy groups. It reports to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. Its leader, Melanie Marty, a California EPA toxicologist, said, "If it were me, I would be going to the school board. I would be going to my legislators. I’d be raising Cain."

Also see:

Fishermen, truckers, and energy suppliers accept new eco-rules

Boatloads of Trouble

EPA lowers smog limits -- but not enough

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