!!Health Risk Warning!!... Outside Air Quality and Toxic Pollutants at Schools Near Industrial Plants...

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Thu, 12/11/2008 - 1:52pm.

Addyston, Ohio — The growl of air-monitoring equipment has replaced the chatter of children at Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in this Cincinnati suburb along the Ohio River.  School district officials pulled all students from Hitchens three years ago, after air samples outside the building showed high levels of chemicals coming from the plastics plant across the street.

The levels were so dangerous that the Ohio EPA concluded the risk of getting cancer there was 50 times higher than what the state considers acceptable.

'WEIRD' SMELL: Odor sets off investigation at Ohio school

BEST OR WORST: Where does your school's air quality rank?

The air outside 435 other schools — from Maine to California — appears to be even worse, and the threats to the health of students at those locations may be even greater.

Using the government's most up-to-date model for tracking toxic chemicals, USA TODAY spent eight months examining the impact of industrial pollution on the air outside schools across the nation. The model is a computer simulation that predicts the path of toxic chemicals released by thousands of companies.

USA TODAY used it to identify schools in toxic hot spots — a task the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had never undertaken.

The result: a ranking of 127,800 public, private and parochial schools based on the concentrations and health hazards of chemicals likely to be in the air outside. The model's most recent version used emissions reports filed by 20,000 industrial sites in 2005, the year Hitchens closed.

The potential problems that emerged were widespread, insidious and largely unaddressed:

At Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in East Chicago, Ind., the model indicated levels of manganese more than a dozen times higher than what the government considers safe. The metal can cause mental and emotional problems after long exposures. Three factories within blocks of the school — located in one of the most impoverished areas of the state — combined to release more than 6 tons of it in a single year.

"When you start talking about manganese, it doesn't register with people in poverty," says Juan Anaya, superintendent of the School City of East Chicago district. "They have bigger issues to deal with."

The middle school in Follansbee, W.Va., sits close to a cluster of plants that churn out tens of thousands of pounds of toxic gases and metals a year.

In Huntington, W.Va., data showed the air outside Highlawn Elementary School had high levels of nickel, which can harm lungs and cause cancer.

At San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park, Texas, data indicated carcinogens at levels even higher than the readings that prompted the shutdown of Hitchens. A recent University of Texas study showed an "association" between an increased risk of childhood cancer and proximity to the Houston Ship Channel, about 2 miles from the school.

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.

IN DANGER? Toxics can affect kids, adults differently

In some school districts, emissions from the smokestacks of refineries or chemical plants threatened students of every age, preschool through prom. Outside those schools, reports from polluters themselves often indicated a dozen different chemicals in the air. All are considered toxic by the government, though few have been tested for their specific effects on children.

Scientists have long known that kids are particularly susceptible to the dangers. They breathe more air in proportion to their weight than adults do, and their 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, according to court records. 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.

The U.S. EPA, which has a special office charged with protecting children's health, has invested millions of taxpayer dollars in pollution models that could help identify schools where toxic chemicals saturate the air. Even so, USA TODAY found, the agency has all but ignored examining whether the air is unsafe at the very locations where kids are required to gather.

If regulators had used their own pollution models to look for schools in toxic hot spots, they would have discovered what USA TODAY found: locations — in small towns such as Lucedale, Miss., and Oro Grande, Calif., as well as in large cities such as Houston — where the government's own data indicated the air outside schools was more toxic than the air outside the shuttered Hitchens.

"Wow," says Philip Landrigan, a physician who heads a unit at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York focused on children's health and the environment. "The mere fact that kids are being exposed ought to be enough to force people to pay attention. The problem here is, by and large, there's no cop on the beat. Nobody's paying attention."

 Problems are widespread

Factories, chemical plants and other industries are the lifeblood of many towns, providing the jobs and the tax base that sustain communities. 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.

To identify locations where dangers appear greatest, USA TODAY used a mathematical model, developed by the EPA, called Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators. It estimates how toxic chemicals are dispersed across the nation and in what quantities.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Toxic air and America's schools

With the help of researchers from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA TODAY plotted the locations of schools to rank them based on chemicals likely to be in the air outside. Some of the schools — and the companies responsible for the chemicals — may have closed or moved since the government collected the data. Others may have opened. The rankings showed 435 of those schools with air more toxic than the air outside Meredith Hitchens.

The good news: The model showed levels of industrial chemicals declined at three-quarters of U.S. schools since 1998, a trend that mirrors improved air quality across the nation.

The more ominous news: Outside one-quarter of schools, the model showed students were exposed to higher levels of industrial pollution in 2005 than they were 10 years ago.

Regulators caution that conditions at some schools may be far different than the model makes them appear. That's because the data used in the model are based on estimates submitted by the companies themselves. Clerical errors or flawed interpretations of what needs to be reported can result in misleading impressions about what's released.

Of the 435 schools that ranked worse than Hitchens, Ohio EPA toxicologist Paul Koval believes about "half of those could be better but half could be worse." The economist who helped create the model for the U.S. EPA, Nick Bouwes, takes a different view. The modeled results, he says, "may be a gross underestimate," in part because companies only approximate what they release. Without long-term monitoring, Koval and Bouwes agree, no one can be certain which schools have problems and which might not.

Among the hot spots that might justify monitoring, the government's model identified:

Deer Park, Texas, near Houston, where students at elementary, middle and high schools faced dangerously high levels of butadiene, a carcinogen, and other gases from petrochemical plants on the Houston Ship Channel.

Lucedale, Miss., where kids at five schools faced air with high levels of chromium, a metal that, in one form, has been linked to cancer.

Oro Grande Elementary in California's Mojave Desert, where students breathed a variety of metals, including chromium, manganese and lead.

BEST OR WORST: Where does your school's air quality rank?

The likely exposures weren't simply the product of living in a part of town where pollution is heavy. In thousands of cases, the air appeared to be better in the neighborhoods where children lived than at the schools they attended, USA TODAY found.

At about 16,500 schools, the air outside the schools was at least twice as toxic as the air at a typical location in the school district. At 3,000 of those schools, air outside the buildings was at least 10 times as toxic.

But in all of these cases, precisely what risk children face remains a mystery — to parents, school officials and government regulators responsible for protecting public health. No laws or regulations require the sort of air monitoring that would tell them.

"There are health and safety standards for adults in the workplace, but there are no standards for children at schools," says Ramona Trovato, the former director of the EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection, who has since retired from the agency. "If a parent complains, there's no law that requires anybody to do anything. It's beyond belief."

'What if we're next?'

Cancer found Matt Becker before he turned 16. It gave him nosebleeds that lasted for hours and a melon-size tumor inside his chest. It kept him in the hospital for weeks at a time, a tube draining quarts of fluid from the lining of his lungs. It stole his sophomore year of high school and almost took his life.

"I never thought a kid my age could go through what I went through," he says now, as calmly as if he were recounting a boring day at school. For eight years, Matt went to school across the street from his house, at Sayler Park School in the Cincinnati neighborhood of the same name.

Now, at 17, he's back in the classroom, in a different school not far from where he lives with his parents and younger brother. His cancer, a non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was diagnosed in 2006 and has since gone into remission, and his life seems much the same as it was before he got sick.

He goes fishing and shoots pool. His hair, closely cropped, has grown back brown and full. Except for a 7-inch purple scar along his right shoulder blade — where doctors went in for exploratory surgery — cancer appears to have left no marks.

FIND MORE STORIES IN: United States | Cincinnati | non-Hodgkin

Matt knows better. His life has barely begun, but already he harbors a fear no child deserves: He worries that the chemotherapy needed to save his life may have left him sterile. "There's a good chance," says his mother, Pam.

The causes of many cancers, especially those in children, are varied and often unknown. Epidemiologists usually fail to pinpoint the culprits, and no one knows what caused Matt's cancer. His mother is haunted by a fear: that the same chemicals that prompted the shutdown of Meredith Hitchens Elementary, 2 miles away, might be to blame.

Like most kids, Matt spent much of his childhood outdoors. He remembers seeing and smelling what came out of the plastics plant. But, like most kids and many parents at schools across the country, he seldom considered what he was breathing and how it might affect his health.

After the diagnosis, "my doctor … asked me if there was any kind of pollution where I lived," Matt recalls. "It never really crossed my mind how bad it could be."

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Toxic air and America's schools

BEST OR WORST: Where does your school rank?

The model used by USA TODAY indicated the school where Matt spent kindergarten through eighth grade — Sayler Park — and his home across the street were touched by the same chemicals that led to the closure of Hitchens. Although the concentrations of carcinogens outside Matt's school were not nearly as high as those found at Hitchens, the model indicated elevated levels there, too.

Ohio EPA's Koval, who supervised monitoring at Hitchens, says concentrations from the model showed cancer risks at Sayler Park would have been about six times higher than what the state considers acceptable.

The company cited by the Ohio EPA — Lanxess Corp. — no longer runs the plastics plant. But a company official who used to manage the Addyston facility says state regulators overstated the dangers. "The situation wasn't so dire that there was a serious public risk," says A.J. "Sandy" Marshall, now president and managing director for Lanxess Inc., the company's Canadian subsidiary. In 2005, Lanxess reported emitting 55,000 pounds of butadiene and acrylonitrile, both considered carcinogens by the Ohio EPA.

Marshall says the state EPA used flawed or outdated studies to claim that cancer risks were high. Although Marshall says Lanxess took major steps to curb its emissions, he says the company does not believe the 369 kids moved from Hitchens faced any serious dangers.

The Ohio EPA says otherwise.

In its air-quality study issued in December 2005, the agency explained how it determined the risks outside Hitchens were 50 times higher than acceptable. The state considers an "acceptable" cancer risk as one additional cancer for every 100,000 people, based on the idea that residents would breathe the air there for 70 years.

At Hitchens, the air showed concentrations of chemicals that the state concluded could cause 50 more cancers for every 100,000 people. It also noted that "children may be at higher risk" than adults.

'WEIRD' SMELL: Scent sets off investigation at Ohio school

IN DANGER? Toxics can affect kids differently

During the years Matt was growing up, Koval says, equipment problems at the plastics plant meant emissions of one of the carcinogens probably were much worse than what monitoring found. That's because an industrial flare, a tall flame used to burn off butadiene, wasn't working properly, Koval says. That problem, Koval says, and fewer regulations on what the plant could emit likely meant butadiene was being released at levels Koval calls "alarming."

Lanxess' Marshall says the company believes it ran the flare properly and met its permit requirements. How much butadiene Matt or the children at Hitchens breathed will never be clear.

Marshall cites a study released in 2006 by the state and county health departments, which found a higher-than-expected number of cancers in Addyston and concluded that "smoking history and multiple other risk factors are likely to play a role" in the excess cancers. But the study also said that "exposures from the Lanxess facility cannot be ruled out" as a cause. It never examined cases in Matt's Sayler Park neighborhood, nor did the state monitor there.

Children's health experts such as physician Landrigan say "it's plausible" that Matt's cancer might be related to his exposure to the chemicals. Too little is known — about childhood cancer and toxic chemicals — to ever be certain, and Landrigan made clear he did not examine Matt or his medical records.

Lanxess' Marshall also cannot say. "I feel for the family," he says of the Beckers. "When these diseases hit, there certainly is a lot of questioning as to what happens, what causes it and so on."

That's no comfort to Pam Becker. She worries when Matt loses weight; every pound he drops might be the cancer returning. And she frets about her younger boy, Nick. At 13, he only half-jokes that he holds his breath near the plant.

"How guilty do we feel if we gave our kid this because of where we live and where we sent him to school?" Pam Becker asks. "What if Nick's next? What if we're next?"

 Cancer at Port Neches

A few blocks beyond the trees around Port Neches-Groves High School in Port Neches, Texas, gray towers jut into the air. The towers help cool factories that use chemicals to make rubber and plastics — the kind of chemicals that former students there say gave them cancer.

The federal government built the plants in Port Neches during World War II, searching for a substitute for rubber supplies that had been cut off. Now they're owned by ISP Elastomers and Texas Petrochemicals.

MEASURING TOXICITY: Many chemicals hit schools

IN DANGER? Toxics can affect kids differently

For decades, butadiene was released from the plants, often at levels that state monitoring showed could be harmful. So much escaped that it sometimes formed sweet-smelling clouds hovering over roads near the school, remembers Dave Cerami, who graduated in 1984.

Cerami, 43, is in his fourth bout with cancer. This time, it has spread to his brain.

"The last time I was diagnosed, that was a big kick," he says. "It's like, how many times can you dance this dance? How many times can you push your luck before your luck runs out?"

It is one of many questions that he — and those he grew up with — cannot answer. Another: How bad was the air at their schools?

"If you lived here and you have kids in the school, you don't want to believe it's harmful. And if you're the school, you don't want to believe that having a school there would be giving kids cancer," says Dale Hanks, a Beaumont, Texas, lawyer.

Hanks has represented 27 graduates of Port Neches schools, including Cerami, who sued the chemical plants, their former owners and others after being diagnosed with cancer. The emissions they blamed took place before the plants' current owners took over.

Seventeen of those cases have been settled out of court since the late 1990s, and confidentiality agreements bar the plaintiffs from discussing agreements. Ten more complaints are pending. No trial dates have been set.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Toxic air and America's schools

Five years after Cerami graduated, state regulators tried to find out how bad the air was. When Texas authorities looked in 1989, their monitors detected levels of butadiene near the schools that were more than four times higher than the state's safety standard. A decade later, state workers sent to monitor the air reported dizziness, nausea and "facial numbness," according to a 1999 report by the state Commission on Environmental Quality. Another report, in 2003, noted butadiene levels as much as 120times higher than the state's standard.

After monitoring began, the state pressed the chemical plants to upgrade their equipment to curb emissions; butadiene levels fell sharply. Texas considers its efforts a success.

But Vic Fair, head of the commission's regional office until he retired in 2001, says he never talked to the school district about what the monitors showed, and the school district never asked. "We didn't really have a way to tell people whether this is dangerous or not," he says. "What can we say?"

 Who's responsible?

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.

As early as 2002, an EPA advisory committee now led by Melanie Marty, a California EPA toxicologist, questioned the agency's failure to be more proactive. The group, 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.

THE WORST: Schools with highest toxins outside

MEASURING TOXICITY: Many chemicals can hit schools

Hundreds of pages of correspondence reviewed by USA TODAY show that among the committee's recommendations were calls for the EPA to develop better information about the exposure of children to toxic chemicals. One letter, sent by the committee to then-EPA administrator Christie Whitman on May 2, 2002, urged a more aggressive approach by the EPA to "environmental health threats at schools."

Although the letter focused on concerns about air quality inside schools, it asked the EPA to "identify environmental considerations" that communities could consider as they select school sites. Among them: proximity to "hazardous facilities."

"School communities need reliable information about the risks to children's health from exposure to environmental contaminants," the letter read.

A response came almost three months later, from Assistant Administrator Jeffrey Holmstead, restating the agency's commitment to children and listing a variety of programs it supported. The letter did not mention proximity of schools to hazardous facilities.

The EPA has taken many steps toward making children safer.

It has worked with schools to improve air quality inside buildings, primarily by identifying toxic cleaners and other chemicals that might harm students.

Today the EPA is investigating whether athletic fields made with synthetic turf expose children to unsafe levels of toxic chemicals.

What the agency hasn't done is use its models, as USA TODAY did, to look for potential problems around schools — then follow up by testing for toxic chemicals. "Honestly, it didn't occur to me to do this study when I was there, and if it had, we would've initiated it," says Trovato, who directed the EPA's children's health office from 1997 to 2002.

"This isn't something you want to ignore," she says of what USA TODAY found. "If I were still in that job, the only thing I'd feel is, 'I wish I'd thought of it.' "

The current head of the children's health protection office, Ruth McCully, sees her role differently. "It's not my job responsibility to initiate those types of activities," says McCully, who took over this year. "Do I personally have any idea of the chemicals that might be outside kids' schools? Well, I'm not going to answer that," she says. "I'm not out there doing air monitoring."

That's precisely the problem, critics contend: a lack of urgency and initiative on the part of EPA.

"That's the argument EPA puts up: 'We don't know so we don't have to act,'" says Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, an advocacy group that focuses on children and schools.

John Balbus, chief health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the EPA children's advisory committee, frames the problem more practically. "To me, the greatest failure of this administration has been the failure to focus on where problems may be occurring now and take action."

At Meredith Hitchens, the Ohio EPA concluded the risk of getting cancer was 50 times what the state considers acceptable. If a school is one of the 435 where the model indicates air worse than at Hitchens, what should parents do?

"If it were me, I would be going to the school board. I would be going to my legislators and raising Cain," says Marty, the California toxicologist.

And the companies near schools? "I would think that responsible industry would be very supportive of monitoring," says Rick Hackman, a former member of the EPA advisory committee and the associate director of regulatory and technical relations for P&G North America.

And what about regulators, state or federal, primarily responsible for protecting health and safety? Says the EPA's Bob Lee, an economist who directs the team that manages the pollution model: "I'd suggest they go do some monitoring."

 Blake Morrison and Brad Heath - December 11, 2008 - source USAToday


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Submitted by SadInAmerica on Thu, 12/11/2008 - 1:52pm.