2009-03-05 / Front Page

DEP, EPA Monitor ing School Air Quality

DEP reports refute USA Today report findings, no testing planned here

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has acted on USA Today's reports of unsafe air quality levels near several Pennsylvania schools and now the new administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also promised to monitor the air for a variety of toxic chemicals near schools.

Action by the two agencies comes on the heels of a December 2008 report from USA Today on the air quality around more than 125,000 schools across the country. Notably here, Central Fulton School District's three schools ranked in the first percentile, or number 168 out of the 125,000 schools with the worst air.

In its report, "The Smokestack Effect - Toxic Air and America's Schools," the newspaper used an elementary school in Ohio as a gauge to rank air quality around the schools that were monitored as part of the special report. The Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Addyston, Ohio, was closed after air samples outside the building were found to have high levels of chemicals coming from a plastics plant across the street. The levels were so high outside the school that EPA determined the risk of getting cancer there was 50 some times higher that the state considered to be acceptable.

A model was developed by EPA called Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators and that model was used to identify schools in toxic hot spots. The model estimates how toxic chemicals released by companies are dispersed across the nation and in what quantities. The model used emissions reports filed by 20,000 industrial sites in 2005.

Using the model, the paper then found 435 schools with air more toxic than the air outside the Hitchens school. Of the 435 schools, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois has the highest numbers, but the worst schools included those in 170 cities across 34 states.

Last month, Pennsylvania's DEP announced it had monitored four of the Pennsylvania schools in the report and found no unsafe level of air pollutants or metals in the schools, which included Midland Elementary School in Beaver County, Wayne Middle School in Erie County, Stonybrook Elementary School in York County and Phoenixville Area Kindergarten Center in Chester County.

Each of the four schools was monitored using air quality monitors directly at the school buildings, and samples were collected and tested over several weeks. Each school was monitored for the air pollutants identified by USA Today's snapshot testing. The pollutants included chromium, manganese, benzene, naphthalene and nickel.

Although DEP plans to monitor an additional six schools, there are currently no plans to monitor the Central Fulton schools. According to DEP spokesperson Teresa Candori, the four schools tested had actually had snapshot testing done for the USA Today report. Although Central Fulton schools were on the list, no snapshot testing was actually done at the local schools for the newspaper report.

Instead, Candori said, they did an analysis of toxic inventory data gathered by EPA and then using "modeling" did calculations on what the air quality might be in the area of the schools. Candori said that although the toxic inventory data is collected to help monitor air quality, "in some ways, they (USA Today) misapplied the information and used only comparison data rather than doing a risk assessment."

She said that while DEP has no plans to test at the local schools, it has agreed to test six more schools at their request. Those six schools, like Central Fulton, were subject to the model used by the newspaper. The schools include two in Erie County, and one each in Chester, Lawrence, Lancaster and Berks counties. She concluded, saying, "So while we are not scheduled to test at Central Fulton, our tests in the six additional counties will give us some idea of what air quality levels are in those areas where snapshot testing was not done."

According to DEP acting secretary John Hanger, the agency did not find the levels of pollutants the newspaper's (USA Today) testing seemed to indicate. Hanger said, "Our testing found the total excess lifetime cancer risk from exposure to pollutants at these schools is within the acceptable range identified by the EPA. However, any health risk to a child, of course, is difficult for a parent to accept, which is why we are so committed to reducing air pollution not only in the are around these schools, but everywhere across the commonwealth."

At each school monitored, DEP calculated excess lifetime cancer risk, or the risk above the general overall cancer risk of four in 10, from the exposure to the pollutants of concern. The risks ranged from 4 in 100,000 at Stonybrook Elementary to 5 in one million at Phoenixville. The EPA generally considers an excess lifetime cancer risk above one in 10,000 to be unacceptable.

At the national level, Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator promised during her confirmation hearings in January to identify 50 to 100 schools across the nation where air pollution might pose significant health risks. Jackson called it a "priority" and said the agency would begin taking test samples within five weeks and may release some results within a few months. The cost of the effort was estimated at around $2.5 million.

The USA Today report said, "Children are particularly susceptible to toxic chemicals. They breathe more in proportion to their weight than do adults, and their bodies are still developing. Exposure to some chemicals can trigger ailments such as asthma or lead to cancer years or decades later."

The USA Today report had indicated that the chemicals most responsible for the toxicity outside the McConnellsburg schools were diisocyanates, manganese and manganese compounds. The paper's report also listed the polluters most responsible for the toxics outside the school, and they included: JLG Industries Inc.; U.S. Army Letterkenny Army Depot; Kennametal Inc., Bedford, Pa; and Redland Brick Inc., Cushwa plant, Williamsport, Md.

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