In some cases, the most toxic part of a child’s day takes place in the one spot that parents shouldn’t have to worry about: their time at school. Schools are frequently (and counterintuitively) some of the most polluted places in the community, for a number of reasons. First, there’s the land issue. “Building on the cheapest piece of land is one way to limit the line item for school budgets,” note Philip & Alice Shabecoff. “That means, more time than you might believe, that schools get built on or next to some of the most poisoned places in America.” (2010, p. 72) Ironically there are many state laws on the books that make it illegal to build a dump or other potentially toxic site within half a mile of a school, but “nothing in the law says you can’t build a school within half a mile of a dump or even on top of one.” (ibid)

The second issue is that many schools have been around for a while. A school is one of those continual use entities that will often last in some form or another for hundreds of years. Some schools sit atop the place where pioneer children gathered in a log structure hundreds of years ago. This also means that the infrastructure of many school buildings dates back decades or even a hundred or more years into the past, back to a time when lead and asbestos were still common building materials. The sheer age of many schools means that they sit atop a toxic infrastructure of lead based water systems or asbestos-lined pipes.

The problem of toxic schools

Just how big of a problem is this? Bigger than many parents might imagine. The nonprofit Center for Health Environment & Justice found 1,195 schools that reside within a half-mile radius of a hazardous waste site. (ibid) Another recent examination found that 20,000 schools in the United States, or about 1 in 6, are located within half-a-mile of a major industrial plant. Half of the most polluted schools were serving pre-k or elementary school students. (Morrison, Heath & Jervis, 2008) A report by the Government Accountability Office found unhealthy indoor air at half the nation’s schools. Many had asbestos lingering in the walls and ceilings. (GAO, 1995) And as we’ll discuss later in this chapter, in some districts as many as 99% of schools test positive for elevated lead levels in their water supply.

As alarming as these statistics are, equally concerning is the fact that no laws exist that would require the sort of monitoring that would determine health risks to students. (In fact, schools are even exempted from many of the statutes that regulate things like water quality.) There also aren’t any funds set aside to monitor the chemical exposure at schools, and finding the money in already-strained school budgets to actually do anything about the problems that exist is even harder. “There are health and safety standards for adults in the workplace, but there are no standards for children at schools,” says Romano Trovato, the former director of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, who has since retired from the agency. “If a parent complains, there’s no law that requires anybody to do anything. It’s beyond belief.” (Morrison & Heath, 2008)

Toxic Air Pollution At Schools

The toxic journey to school begins in an unsuspecting place: The big yellow school bus your children climb onto. Each year approximately 24 million kids will be ferried to school on the nation’s 505,000 school buses. Collectively they’ll spend 3 billion hours on the school bus each year. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 71) But these fixtures of childhood also happen to spew toxic fumes into the air.

Diesel school buses are among some of the oldest and dirtiest vehicles on the road. New York City school buses alone contribute around 1.3 million tons of soot into the city’s air each year. (Depalma, 2004) This exhaust gets up into the air children breathe: A child taking the bus to school is exposed to 8-times more pollutants than a peer who walks to school. (Montagne, 2002) But even if you skip the bus altogether you’re not necessarily in the clear: Buses often sit idle at the school, spewing even more fumes into the air around the school.

Then there’s the airborne toxins that come from the areas around the school. One analysis that calculated likely air exposures based on industrial activity found that at around 16,500 U.S. schools, the air outside the school was at least twice as toxic as the air at the typical location in the school district. At 3,000 of these schools, air outside the buildings was at least 10 times as toxic. The calculated exposures weren’t simply the product of living in a part of town where pollution is heavy, either. In thousands of cases, the air appeared to be better in the neighborhoods where children lived than at the schools they attended. What’s more, the situation seems to be getting worse: The model showed that students outside one-quarter of schools were exposed to higher levels of pollution from industry in 2005 than children were 10 years ago. (Morrison & Heath, 2008)

“Wow,” exclaimed Philip Landigran, a physician who heads a unit on children’s health and the environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and someone whose seen plenty of reports on toxic contamination in his lifetime. “The mere fact that kids are being exposed ought to be enough to force people to pay attention. The problem here is, by and large, there’s no cop on the beat. Nobody’s paying attention.” This fact was made abundantly clear when reporters contacted Ruth McCully, then head of the Children’s Health Protection Office. She responded by saying: “It’s not my job responsibility to initiate those types of activities [to monitor toxic exposures]. Do I personally have any idea of the chemicals that might be outside kids’ schools? Well, I’m not going to answer that. I’m not out there doing air monitoring.” (ibid)

At Hitchens Elementary School in Cincinnati, air samples showed high levels of chemicals coming from a plastics plant across the street. The EPA concluded the risk of cancer at this school was 50-times higher than what the state considers acceptable. Yet Hitchens isn’t alone: the air outside 435 other schools appeared to be even worse, and might pose health risks far greater. (ibid)

In Hartford, Connecticut, officials found levels of airborne PCB outside Clark Elementary School that could pose a risk for students. (USA Today, 2-15-2016, 4A) Acrylonitrile, a chemical that can be deadly to kids when inhaled in high enough concentrations, was found in the air outside Addyston School in Ohio. (Morrison & Heath, 2008B)

Want to learn more? Get our eBook Toxic Childhood to learn the full story of toxic chemicals in and around your child’s school. It’s just $7.99, and all proceeds from your purchase go to help kids in need.