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Many Schools Built Near Toxic Sites, Study Finds

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By Eric Pianin and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 21, 2002; Page A02

Hundreds of thousands of children throughout the country are attending schools that were built on or near toxic waste sites, putting them at increased risk of developing asthma, cancer, learning disorders and other diseases linked to environmental pollutants, according to a new study.

The report, prepared by an environmental coalition called Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign and released yesterday, found that most states and public school systems lack environmental standards for selecting school construction sites. Instead, school projects are regulated only by local land-use laws, which the report called haphazard when it comes to evaluating environmental hazards. Consequently, the report said, many cash-strapped systems have opted to build on relatively cheap land on or near toxic waste sites.

The study focused mainly on five states with large school-age populations -- Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and California -- and concluded that more than 600,000 students were attending nearly 1,200 public schools that are located within a half mile of federal Superfund or state-identified contaminated sites. The report added that "one can only guess" the number for all 50 states.

"We knew there were a lot of schools being built on or near toxic sites, but we had no idea the numbers would be this staggering," said Lois Gibbs, a leader of the group who 20 years ago helped expose the toxic poisoning at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. "Schools should be a place for learning, not a place that makes kids sick."

The study is a sequel to a report issued by the group last year but contains far more statistical evidence that by simply attending school children are in danger of being exposed to dangerous toxins that scientists say can diminish their health and learning capacities. No state except California has a law requiring school officials to investigate potentially contaminated property and no federal or state agency keeps records of public or private schools that operate on or near toxic waste or industrial sites.

Gibbs's group compared data from the U.S. Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, matching public school locations with nearby contaminated sites to compile their list.

Of the five states studied, Massachusetts had by far the biggest problem, though broader criteria were used for sites there: 818 public schools with 407,229 pupils located on or within a half mile of contaminated land. New York has 235 schools with 142,738 students on or near toxic sites; Michigan has 64 such schools with 20,999 students; California has 43 such schools with 32,865 students and New Jersey has 36 such schools with 18,200 students, but in both those states only Superfund sites are listed. (A complete listing of the school sites can be found on the Web site

The study did not examine in detail the situation at any of the schools listed and offered no evidence of a direct link between the location of the schools and health or developmental problems experienced by their students. The coalition also chose to use a half-mile radius as the cut-off for defining whether a school was "near" a contaminated site, reasoning that children who live that distance from school generally walk to class.

However, the study notes there has been a sharp increase in the number of children afflicted with asthma, cancer, diminished IQs and learning disabilities during the past two decades and that experts say that children exposed to harmful toxins at home, at play or at school are particularly at risk to those health and developmental problems.

"During a critical period of their growth and development, children spend a large part of the day at school," the report says. "To needlessly place them in settings that heighten risk of disease or hyperactivity or lower IQ is therefore irresponsible."

EPA spokesman John Kasper said that the agency launched an "outreach program" to alert local officials about the hazards posed by Superfund sites. Still, he said, "this is something we are concerned about and we'll look at this report very closely."

David Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education, said that local officials should closely consider environmental factors when building schools. "Siting schools is a local issue," he said. "It seems to me that local officials have a vested interest more than anyone to ensure that their schools are safe for their children."

Reggie Felton, a Washington lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, which represents the nation's 15,000 school board members, said while the group wants environmentally safe schools it is also "leery" of any new regulations that will further burden cash-strapped school systems.

While most of the schools cited in the study were built decades ago, a few -- including three in Providence, R.I., and one in Detroit -- were built much more recently.

In some cases, parents and communities have succeeded in blocking new school projects on or near former waste sites. In Los Angeles, for example, the school district proposed in 1985 to build the Belmont Learning Complex as a middle school to alleviate overcrowding and serve mostly Latino students from the city's poorest neighborhoods.

That project mushroomed into a proposed 35-acre, state-of-the-art high school campus and adjacent housing and commercial development. But the $123 million project was abandoned in the mid-1990s after parents learned what the school system already knew -- that the site was a former oil field and industrial site that was saturated with explosive methane gas, poisonous hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds.

With the U.S. school population growing and a projected national need for at least 2,400 new schools in the next few years, the coalition is calling on state or federal officials to develop guidelines to prohibit schools from being built close to contaminated sites.

"Failure to act would place tens of thousands of children at risk of being exposed to toxic chemicals at their place of learning," the report said.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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