School Children Inhale Toxics Daily, Senate Told

By J.J. Smith

WASHINGTON, DC, October 1, 2002 (ENS) - A prominent U.S. senator supports establishing a federal regulation setting standards for the indoor air quality of schools, while a activist who has been leading environmental causes for more than two decades wants increased funding so schools districts can test sites for toxics before construction.

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Senator Hillary Clinton (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Senator Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, told an official from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as others testifying at a hearing today before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, that the agency should establish indoor air quality standards for schools.

Indoor air quality standards for schools are necessary to require removal of toxics including mold and dust in order to reduce asthma and other health problems among school children, according to Clinton, who is a member of the committee.

Air quality has been a problem in New York schools where the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center sent dust and toxic particles all over New York City.

"This needs to be fixed. We don't need to wait for another disaster," Clinton said.

Attending the hearing, Jenna Orkin represented the Concerned Stuyvesant Community Association, which supports Stuyvesant High School, a New York City Ground Zero school which was evacuated on September 11 and re-occupied in early October. It has been continuously infiltrated by fumes, caustic dusts, lead, and asbestos from the World Trade Center fires and debris operations.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found health effects in 60 percent of the 300 plus employees who returned to Stuyvesant High School, but the agency was not authorized to study effects on the 3,000 students.

EPA official Ramona Trovato said that while "protecting our children's health is a priority" for the agency, the "EPA does not have the authority to set standards for indoor environments."

The agency can monitor the air quality of buildings, but the EPA has never studied the air quality of schools, she told the committee.

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Families who fought a contaminated school in southeast Los Angeles with waste hauling truck in the background (Photo courtesy Communities for A Better Environment)
School children may be exposed to many other contaminants including chemicals in cleaning products and art supplies, materials and furnishings used in school buildings, fumes from idling school buses, pesticides, radon and potentially even mishandled sources of mercury and asbestos, according to Trovato.

Despite that list of contaminants, Trovato said "budget shortfalls" at the federal and local levels have resulted in inadequate maintainance in older schools "leading to a host of environmental problems that can have dramatic impacts on children, staff, learning, and the fiscal bottom line."

About 25 percent of schools report needing extensive repair or replacement of one or more buildings, and about 11 million children attend classes in those buildings, she said.

Environmentalist Lois Gibbs told the committee that while those millions of children are exposed to contaminants daily, there are no consistent guidelines for preventing the construction of a school near a toxic waste dump, or some other environmental hazard.

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Signs near Tweedy Elementary School near Santa, Monica, California (Photo courtesy CBE)
"While laws compel children to attend school, there are, astoundingly, no guidelines or laws in place that compel school districts to locate school buildings on property that will protect the school population from environmental health and safety risks," said Gibbs. Only California has some regulations and an assessment process for the building of new schools, she told the committee.

Gibbs became known nationally from 1979 for her fight to get the federal government to pay to move families out of the contaminated Love Canal section of Niagara Falls, New York. She now serves as executive director of the Center for Health Environment and Justice (CHEJ), a grassroots community organization based in Falls Church, Virginia.

Gibbs

Lois Gibbs (Photo courtesy Colgate University Dept. of Environmental Studies)
Gibbs told the committee that a study of schools in five states by CHEJ researchers found that 1,185 schools are located within half a mile of a known toxic site.

The study of schools in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and New York found more than 620,000 students are enrolled at those 1,185 schools, Gibbs said.

"Based on the report's findings, we believe there is a critical need for national laws ensuring that the locations for new schools are safe, and that, if contaminated property is considered, it is properly cleaned up," Gibbs said.

The center has developed model legislation that urges establishing a "school siting committee" whose job it is to recommend sites for building new schools or the expansion of existing schools.

The federal government should provide funding so that school districts can have potential construction sites tested for toxins. "In order for schools to assess property [for toxics], it costs money. The more economically depressed an area, the more likely it will build on a [waste] dump," Gibbs said.

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Three Detroit area school children (Photo courtesy State Environmental Resource Center)
Senator Clinton supports increased funding saying the money should be included in the Special Education Reauthorization Act, which funds programs for developmentally handicapped students.

A program that allocates funds so school districts can determine if a potential construction site is contaminated, "would prevent problems that cause learning disabilities," Clinton said.

"From one-quarter, to one-half of one percent of the construction budget" would fund a site assessment for toxics, testified Alex Wilson, an expert on environmentally sound schools.

Based on its survey, the CHEJ estimates that by 2003 school districts across the United States propose to build 2,400 new schools.

Backed by parents from across the country, many of whom appeared at the hearing, Claire Barnett, founder and executive director of Healthy Schools Network urged the committe to back funds and reforms to improve the schools.

"Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness, while schools are overcrowded and unventilated, bugs nest in broken walls, toxic cleaning supplies have provoked some school rashes," she said.

"We all see a crisis caused by the collision of trend lines - more students, more school decay, more students with asthma, learning and behavior disorders, and autism spending more hours at school daily," said Barnett. "School environments are densely occupied indoor environments. This issue is at the center of how we live and how we educate the next generation."