Special Report Investigates Impact of Industrial Pollution on America's Schools

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Online Database Uses Government Data to Track How Toxic Chemicals Affect Air at Nearly 128,000 Schools

USA TODAY is launching an investigative series today (12/8/08) called “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools.” The special project looks at issues such as why children are vulnerable to toxic chemicals and, using the government’s own data and modeling software, points to schools which appear to be in toxic hot spots. The series took eight months to produce and will run through the month.

An interactive database of nearly 128,000 schools shows how emissions of toxic chemicals may affect the air at schools across the country. It also shows how schools rank in their exposure to cancer-causing and other toxic chemicals.

The database is modeled on information reported to the government by 20,000 industrial plants. The series also offers information on how Americans can learn more about the air outside their schools and do something about it.

In Part I of the “The Smokestack Effect,” USA TODAY compares what the model shows to what the State of Ohio found after it monitored the air outside Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Addyston, a Cincinnati suburb. In 2005, Hitchens was closed after the Ohio EPA found levels of carcinogens 50 times higher than what the state considers acceptable. The chemicals were emitted from a plastics plant across the street from the school.

USA TODAY found that the air outside 435 schools nationwide may be even worse than the air was outside Hitchens when it closed. Those schools, identified by the government’s own data and model, extended from East Coast to West, in 170 cities across 34 states. USA TODAY also worked with the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health to take “snapshots” of the air at almost 95 schools in 30 states.

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