Editorial: New concern on air quality

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When the Rowan-Salisbury School System retrofitted its older diesel buses with catalytic devices to reduce emissions a few years ago, officials cited concern for the health of young bus riders as one of the factors behind that initiative, along with the desire to improve air quality overall.
Concern for the health of students has also arisen in discussions about the location of future schools, particularly in relation to Interstate 85 and the vehicular emissions from its heavy traffic.
As it turns out, local officials and environmental advocates were prescient in those concerns. The issue of air quality around the nation’s public schools is likely to get a new burst of attention in the wake of a USA Today study examining the levels of toxic chemicals present in the air outside 128,000 U.S. schools. On the good-news side, the articles published this week found that at 75 percent of the nation’s schools, the level of industrial chemicals present in the air had declined, reflecting improved air quality across much of the nation. The disturbing news: At 25 percent of the schools, levels of industrial pollutants have grown significantly worse in the past decade. At 435 of those schools, the level of students’ exposure to chemicals such as manganese and chromium raises serious health issues.
That includes five schools in North Carolina (two in Canton, two in Gastonia and one in Maxton) ó but, fortunately, none in Rowan. However, interested parents may still want to visit the USA Today Web site to examine the findings for particular schools. Although the chemical exposures are based on computer models, the models are built around toxic release reports that factories and plants are required to file with the Environmental Protection Agency. Using those reports, the EPA has developed grids that map the concentrations of smokestack emissions from specific plants. While the methodology isn’t as precise as on-site readings, it points to potential danger zones where further monitoring can be conducted.
Within Rowan County, no school is in a “toxic hot spot,” yet exposure levels vary markedly. For instance, Hanford Dole Elementary ranks in the third percentile nationally for possible exposure to toxic emissions, while Morgan Elementary in Gold Hill shows far less exposure, ranking in the 39th percentile. The rankings are largely determined by the schools’ proximity to area plants that report the most toxic releases, such as Boral Bricks, Duke’s Buck Steam Plant and Marshall Steam Station, National Starch and Chemical, Invista and Philip Morris’ Cabarrus plant, along with some smaller companies.
To this point, the EPA hasn’t used its toxic-release databases to assess chemical health risks near schools. But given the vulnerability of young lungs, young brains, young nerve and blood systems to chemical exposures, but that would seem a reasonable part of its mission. By identifying toxic hot spots where schools have already been built or might be built in the future, the EPA could better protect young people, as well as the environment.