When we send our kids to school, we realize that they may face some uncomfortable or even dangerous situations. What if the older kids pick on them? Is this school known for violence or gangs?  Is there a drug problem at the school? How do I know my child is safe?
However, the more we know about the risks at schools the safer our kids can be.  We can educate ourselves and talk with our kids about what to do in a dangerous situation. We can make changes in our community by getting involved.

US EPA selected Paulsboro High School for monitoring potential impacts of toxic air pollutants.

But, what about the dangers that can go unnoticed, the risks that you can’t see?

One of the hidden threats to school children today is from air pollution, especially from industrial sources. To better protect our children from this threat, we need not only to educate ourselves about the problem but to become actively involved in finding solutions.

In 2008, USA Today focused national attention to this practically invisible threat to schools in their Smokestack Effect Special Report.  435 schools across the country were identified as having deplorable air quality, up to a dozen times more toxic than EPA regulations would allow.

How does this happen? Whose responsibility is it to monitor air pollution at schools? Why does a newspaper have to reveal this information to communities? A quote at the end of that article offers a little explanation.  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 said, “The problem here is, by and large, there’s no cop on the beat. Nobody’s paying attention.”

In some cases, the communities exposed the chemical threat at their school-sparking  the regulators to action like at Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Addyston, OH.  The elementary school across from a plastics plant was shut down in 2005 and the students were relocated to nearby schools, to a safer distance from the industrial plant which was releasing carcinogenic fumes.  Still there is relenting nervousness, would the Ohio State EPA have done anything if it weren’t for the sheer determination of the community, Bucket Brigade and Ohio Citizen Action’s Good Neighbor Campaign?

However, you may have read the press release about McClymonds High School in West Oakland.  We know there are elevated levels of lead in the classrooms from CASS, a nearby metal recycler.  We know lead exposure can cause a series of mental and emotional developmental problems for youth. Yet none of the schools nearby CASS are on the list.  This only leads to wonder about how the schools were picked for monitoring.  There’s no way to be sure that the EPA monitored all of the schools near industry and there’s no way to be sure that new industry isn’t spewing toxic pollution into our classrooms.  How can we rest assured that the schools in our community are safe when we don’t know if new gas development across the street is seeping chemicals across the fencline or not?

Airhugger has frequently discussed the up and coming natural gas development in the San Juan Basin spreading across much of NM and CO.  Five years ago, Sunnyside Elemenatry School might have had clean air and the parents might have had no need to worry, but now there is a dehydration stack right across the road and air monitoring in January 2011, showed the presence of four known carcinogens on school property.

Can we be confident that all of the schools at risk are being monitored?  Probably not.  Even at the schools being monitored, can we be confident that the monitoring is being done effectively, at the hot spots?  Doubtful.

Unfortunately, the EPA leaves us with no other options than to hold them accountable by conducting citizen air monitoring.  That’s what the Tri-County Watchdogs are doing in Frazier Park, CA.  El Tejon Middle School is right next to I-5 where 18,000 trucks pass by every day.

It’s up to us – the parents, the community activists, and concerned neighbors – to document what is in the air at the schools where we send our kids. And it’s up to us to advocate reform in environmental and land use planning and changes in industrial practices and enforcement of existing laws. While the air pollution problem may not always be visible, it is one we do need to address to protect our children.