EPA Releases Reports on Toxics at Selected Schools

November 24, 2010

On the heels of a major December 2008 USA Today report on outdoor air pollution at hundreds of schools, EPA began to monitor for certain toxics at a small number of US schools. Final reports for 21 of the schools have now been released, with the bulk of the announcements coming on Nov. 9, 2010. The schools are in CA, IL, IN, LA, MI, MN, NY, OH, PA, TN, TX, VA, and WV.

The results are mixed. In some cases, EPA declared there were no problems. In others, EPA identified one or more problematic substances. In the middle ground, the agency said no problems were identified, but acknowledged that one or more nearby toxics emitters was operating at less than normal capacity (thus artificially lowering results), and that more monitoring is needed.

In all cases, the number of substances monitored was small, as was the number of air samples, providing just a few snapshots of long-term air quality. To follow up on what is next for each of these schools, contact the person identified in the press release.

Another limitation of this process is exemplified by the agency's findings for some toxics. For instance, test results showed elevated concentrations of acrolein at 15 schools, but the agency says that this pollutant is so widespread that it may be best to pursue a broader solution, rather than focus on the problem school-by-school. The widespread occurrence of potentially harmful levels of acrolein has been known for many years, but substantial improvements have not yet occurred.

  • National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) (Note: acrolein was found to be a major national hazard for respiratory effects, per its label as a "national noncancer hazard driver," about 2/3 of the way down on this page. An update of the entire NATA was anticipated for late 2009 or early 2010, but has yet to be released.)

For an example of media coverage of EPA's findings on acrolein for the 15 schools, see:

Preliminary data for another 38 schools has already been posted online, and a final report on each is expected, though timing is uncertain. The schools are in AL, CA, CO, IA, ID, IN, KY, MS, NJ, NY, OH, OR, PA, SC, TX, WA, and WV.

These schools are just a small percentage of the 435 identified in the USA Today series, and are just a tiny fraction of the 135,000 or so schools in the country that are home for long periods of time to more than 53 million children and 6 million staff.

In addition, vulnerable people who frequent many other facilities, such as senior centers, day care centers, hospitals, residential zones around high-emission sources, and elsewhere routinely are exposed to elevated toxics, with little or no help provided by local, state, or federal officials.

All of these stories are waiting to be told. Some of the newer and upcoming tools that you can use were highlighted in the Nov. 3 and 17, 2010, WatchDogs.

For more perspective on the schools saga and other related angles and spinoff stories, see the TipSheet of April 15, 2009.