"There is work to be done still on air quality," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson says. "The best result would be to find that all of our concerns were overblown, but we're not finding this in every case."
Most of the air monitoring completed so far has not found dangerous levels of pollution, the EPA says, but outside a handful of schools, the tests showed concentrations of toxic chemicals higher than what the government typically considers to be safe for long-term exposure. The EPA's study came in response to a 2008 USA TODAY investigation that identified hundreds of schools where the air appeared to be rife with industrial pollution. In the past three years, the EPA has gathered air samples outside 63 schools in 22 states.
Samples taken outside three schools in Ohio and West Virginia showed elevated levels of manganese, a neurotoxin that can cause mental and emotional problems. At East Elementary School in East Liverpool, Ohio, samples collected in 2009 showed average levels well above what the EPA considers safe for long-term exposure.
Tests outside at least 15 schools detected high levels of acrolein, a chemical that can irritate the eyes and throat, and that — in a far more potent form — had been used as a chemical weapon during World War I. The EPA suspects those readings were caused by problems with the tests but the agency is taking more samples to be sure.
Samples near a Portland, Ore., school found "slightly elevated" levels of cadmium, a carcinogen. The state Department of Environmental Quality has detected cadmium levels nearby before but has said it cannot identify the source.
The EPA plans to award $2.5 million in grants later this year for additional air monitoring in communities. The agency set up the program as a follow-up to its school study.
The lack of monitoring has left a blind spot for the nation's environmental regulators, says John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a longstanding dirty little secret of the Clean Air Act that neither regulators nor the public knows what hazardous air pollutants and how much are coming from smokestacks in our communities because the monitoring is abysmal," he says.
Children are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals, and new research suggests that the impact of pollution around schools can also threaten the quality of their education.
A study published in May in the journal Health Affairs found that children were more likely to be absent and less likely to meet minimum standards in English and math if they attended schools in areas with high levels of air pollution.
"These patterns appear strong enough that they need to be taken seriously," says University of Michigan professor Paul Mohai, a study author.
The EPA expects to complete its air monitoring efforts this summer.
EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan says the agency plans follow-up tests at about a third of the schools it monitored. Those new tests are needed because the initial tests showed higher levels of pollution than the EPA considered acceptable, or because the factories that regulators suspect are the principal sources of pollution were not operating at their normal capacity during the initial tests, Gilfillan says.
As those tests continue, regulators and activists are taking action near other schools that were not part of the EPA's assessment:
In Mecca, Calif., regulators halted shipments to a waste treatment plant last month because of odors so powerful that paramedics were summoned to Saul Martinez Elementary School several times to treat students and teachers who became sick from the fumes. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., asked the EPA to take immediate action.
In Natrona Heights, Pa., county health officials said levels of lead in the air outside the local high school dropped after a nearby steel mill moved some of its operations to another facility. The Allegheny County Health Department's tests — which came in response to USA TODAY's investigation — showed elevated levels of lead and manganese outside the school in 2009. Officials concluded the metals were coming from a melt shop at an Allegheny Ludlum Corp. steel mill less than a mile away.
In a settlement last year with the county and the EPA, Allegheny Ludlum agreed to move its melting operation to a nearby plant that had been outfitted with more advanced pollution controls. The move had a "very dramatic" impact on lead levels outside the schools, says Darrell Stern, the head of the county health department's air quality unit.
In Portland, Ore., a community group called Neighbors for Clean Air is negotiating an agreement that could require new pollution controls for a steel plant blocks away from Chapman Elementary School. Mary Peveto founded the group two years ago after seeing USA TODAY's investigation.
"If you're in a hot spot, it's up to you to muster an outcry and create solutions," she says.
The mill's operator, ESCO Corp., expects the agreement will include more than $2 million worth of new measures to reduce emissions from the plant, says Carter Webb, the company's environmental affairs manager.