More than 1,900 new schools opened in the 2008-2009 school year alone, and more continue to be built. Picking a site for each school is a very complex process. At times, the competing forces — such as land availability, cost, timing, vehicle and utility access, zoning, and developer cooperation — drive decision makers to build a school at a site that may pose a toxic threat to the children and staff.
Sources include subsurface culprits such as old landfills, brownfield sites, aging pipelines, or leaking underground storage tanks; current or former industrial, commercial, or agricultural emitters; moderately- or heavily-trafficked roads; or the school's own vehicle traffic if it's built in a relatively remote location. Natural sources include floods, earthquakes, or radon.
In an effort to help reduce these threats to vulnerable children who spend many hours each day in school, EPA released on Nov. 17, 2010, a draft of voluntary guidelines for siting new schools. The guidelines were mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The 90-day comment period on the draft closes Feb. 18, 2011. Final guidelines are anticipated in late 2011.
The guidelines are intended primarily for K-12 public and private schools, but with some adaptation, they can also provide insights for other similar settings where young people spend considerable time, including day care centers, technical and vocational schools, colleges, and universities.
To find out where new schools are in the works in your audience area, and whether environmental health considerations are part of the discussion, contact sources such as county and city governments, the local Parent Teacher Association, school districts, major developers, or local advocacy groups.
A few starting points for comments on the draft voluntary guidelines include:
- Center for Health, Environment and Justice; Stephen Lester, 703-237-2249; media contact, Moira Bulloch, 703-237-2249 x19.
- EPA School Siting Task Group, Membership Roster.
Not putting schools in appropriate locations can lead to harmful toxic exposures, as documented in another Tip published today. Mitigation can be very difficult. There are no easy solutions in the new EPA guidelines, since they apply just to new schools (though they can provide guidance to officials as they try to reduce hazards at existing schools).
That leaves some of the 53 million children and 6 million staff that currently inhabit the country's 135,000-plus schools at risk. The number of existing schools in hazardous situations is unknown, but evidence of such problems routinely surfaces. Other recent examples, beyond those cited in the Tip above, include:
- "Sacramento Considers Abandoning School Near Gas Line," McClatchy (Sacramento Bee), Nov. 18, 2010, by Melody Gutierrez.
- "EPA to Remove and Replace Lead-Contaminated Soils at 11 Schools, 16 Child Care Facilities in St. Francois County, Mo.," EPA press release, Nov. 19, 2010.
- "Site of Green School in Los Angeles Needs Toxic Soil Cleanup," Associated Press, Sept. 12, 2010, by Christina Hoag.
- "Pesticide Illness in Schools," Washington State Department of Health (last updated Nov. 9, 2010); includes cases of pesticides drifting from nearby properties and affecting either schools or school buses in transit.
- "Many US Schools in 'Air Pollution Danger Zone'," ScienceDaily, Aug. 20, 2008 (addresses school proximity to busy roads).