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Air Tests Reveal High Toxin Levels Near Schools

Dec 11, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP USA Today is reporting that the air around some schools is toxic.  The newspaper monitored 95 schools in 30 states, working with scientists from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.  The team found levels near seven schools that were so high people could fall ill or cancer risks could increase.  The schools tested high for two metals—manganese and chromium—and two known carcinogens—benzene and naphthalene—said USA Today.  Johns Hopkins found especially high benzene levels outside at least three schools with levels sufficient to cause at least one more cancer for every 10,000 people exposed throughout their lives, USA Today said; studies have long linked benzene to leukemia.

All of the toxins, noted USA Today, were found in concentrations that the paper said could exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits for long-term exposure.  Also, at 57 other schools, results indicated chemical combinations that, while lower than the seven worst of the group, were still higher than acceptable by many state standards, said USA Today, which noted that benzene was the worst offender in about half of the schools.  Experts note that even low toxin levels can cause irreversible, permanent damage in children, said USA Today.

Exposures "may be causing mutations in a child's cells that begin the pathway to cancer.  Those mutations, once they take place, they're hard-wired.  They may go on to cancer. They may go nowhere.  But they certainly put the child at greater risk of cancer, and that risk is life-long," Philip Landrigan, one of the nation's foremost experts on pediatric medicine and a physician at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, told USA Today.

USA Today explained how regulators determine cancer risks.  Regulators determine how many more cancer cases might come about because of pollution, said USA Today, noting that if that risk—based on lifetime exposure—is under one more case per one million people, the EPA will deem the air safe.  If, however, the risk is more than one in 100,000, regulators would consider collaborating with industries, said USA Today, which found that the higher level was found at 64 of the 95 schools tested.  "These results suggest that we need to be concerned about what the children are breathing while at school," Patrick Breysse told USA Today.  Breysse is a scientist with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Center for Childhood Asthma in the Urban Environment at Hopkins; Breysse helped oversee USA TODAY's investigation, it said.  Breysse said he hopes the results will move the government to act "with some sense of urgency," adding that, "In extreme cases, it may mean shutting down or moving schools."

USA Today also explained that the government generally monitors for six chemicals, typically those that cause smog; however, the EPA’s Inspector General noted in a report a few years ago that there were problems in the EPA’s monitoring for about 180 other toxic chemicals, finding that “many high-risk areas" lack such monitoring.  The paper also pointed out that over the past 10 years its search of EPA records found just three percent of this country’s schools within one mile of a long-term monitor and only 125 of almost 128,000 schools had monitors within a few blocks.

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