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Testing for Toxics at Schools Sparks Lawsuits

ACROSS THE NATION: Controversies brew over possible toxic emissions
Almost a year after tests by USA TODAY found significant levels of two potentially toxic metals in the air outside the school, local health officials expanded their own monitoring efforts here. The reason: Air samples taken by the county earlier this year showed even higher levels of the metals than what USA TODAY found — on two days, at least nine times more.

Highlands, flanked by two metals plants, is among scores of schools where regulators — local, state or federal — are monitoring outdoor air for toxic chemicals, many that pose unique dangers to kids. The monitoring is not required by law but came in response to the USA TODAY investigation that identified hundreds of schools where chemicals from nearby industries may permeate the air.

Since Allegheny County health officials here found high levels of chromium and manganese in monitoring during January and February, they have urged patience. Air samples gathered in the past few months seem to offer some reassurance. Health officials say the most recent samples, indicate lower levels of the most dangerous type of chromium than their earlier estimates. That news is likely to come as a relief to parents who have children at Highlands, a school of about 950.

Even so, questions remain about dangers from long-term exposures to the other metal found: manganese, which may affect brain development, behavior and the ability to learn, especially in children.

“We don’t know enough to say it’s a problem, but we don’t know enough to say it’s not a problem,” says Keeve Nachman, an environmental toxicologist with Johns Hopkins University who examined the county’s findings for USA TODAY. He says the county’s findings reflect “potentially concerning exposures.”

Such unanswered questions have prompted action across the nation. Residents in Indiana and South Carolina have filed lawsuits against industries in their communities. Activists in Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio continue to fight construction of facilities they believe would threaten the health of children in the area.

The government also has responded. In an unprecedented step, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a $2.25 million program to examine air quality outside 63 schools in 22 states.

To date, the EPA has begun monitoring at 60 of the 63 locations. As at Highlands, officials stress that the first samples are intended to discern whether students face any immediate dangers from toxic chemicals, not to evaluate chronic health risks, which often requires longer monitoring periods.

At a few schools, preliminary results indicate chemicals at levels that generally are considered safe for short-term exposures. At other locations, monitoring continues. At Stevens Creek Elementary in Cupertino, Calif., for example, regulators plan to monitor for at least a year because a nearby cement kiln wasn’t operating when the first samples were taken in July. Such facilities typically release chromium.

At Highlands, local officials took the lead in monitoring. What they found in this small town outside Pittsburgh offers an example of how complicated and frustrating the process can be.

In January and February, regulators with the county health department found elevated concentrations of chromium and manganese during about 10 days of testing. On Feb. 6, health department documents show levels of manganese at seven times above the federal government’s safety threshold for long-term exposure.

Precisely what danger students at Highlands and three nearby schools might face from the metals is far less clear.

Airborne chromium can take two forms. The more dangerous form, known as hexavalent chromium or chromium 6, can cause cancer. It can be released during steelmaking and cement production. The other, chromium 3, is relatively harmless.

Results from the recent samples indicate most of the chromium is of the benign variety, health department spokesman Guillermo Cole said Friday. “Parents should have no concerns about chromium 6 levels posing any significant cancer risk,” he says.

The high levels of manganese appear more troubling. The EPA has not determined whether manganese causes cancer, but high exposures can cause mental disabilities and emotional problems. Children — who breathe more air in proportion to their weight than adults do — may be more vulnerable.

Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician who leads a unit on children and the environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, says manganese acts as a neurotoxin. Exposures early in life, he says, can cause “loss of IQ, dulling of intelligence — basically the same types of effects as lead.” Moreover, Landrigan says, children may be at least 10 times more susceptible than adults.

Cole acknowledges that manganese levels were above what the EPA considers safe for long-term exposure. “Fortunately,” Cole says, “the children spend most of their time inside the school and the levels found there earlier this year were well below” safety thresholds.

Officials need to know more before they can pronounce the air safe, says Hopkins toxicologist Nachman. In part, that’s because the readings changed dramatically from one sample to the next, and the highest level was more than seven times above the EPA’s long-term safety threshold. Those thresholds generally are based on studies of adults. Nachman says officials need to understand how often — and why — that happens before they can assess long-term health risks that children here face.

Meantime, the school has taken steps of its own. Besides working with the county to monitor the air outside and in the school’s library, Highlands principal Tom Shirey says the school replaced “every door and window in this building since this summer. This place is sealed up tighter than a snare drum.”

Shirey says “there’s no readily apparent sign” of pollution from the two plants near the school, each within a mile.

The largest of the two, a steel mill operated by Allegheny Ludlum Corp., reported to the EPA that it released at least 1,280 pounds of chromium and 2,602 pounds of manganese into the air last year. Reporting laws do not require that the company differentiate between the types of chromium, but company spokesman Dan Greenfield says the emissions aren’t harmful.

• In Ohio, the current and former owners of a plastics plant outside Cincinnati agreed to pay a $3.1 million civil penalty for violating several environmental laws. In 2005, pollution from the plant — then owned by Lanxess Corp. — prompted school officials to close a school across the street. The closure of Meredith Hitchens Elementary came after seven months of air monitoring by the Ohio EPA. The agency found such high levels of carcinogens that it concluded the risk of getting cancer there was 50 times higher than what the state considers acceptable. INEOS, which currently operates the plant in Addyston, Ohio, also agreed to spend up to $2 million to improve environmental controls. The agreement among the company, Justice Department and EPA became final this month.

• In Indiana, a group of parents in Gary filed suit against 11 area companies, alleging that their emissions of toxic chemicals and other substances could put children at risk. Lawmakers there also passed a measure this year that allows the state health department to investigate complaints from parents and teachers about air quality inside schools. But legislators shelved a second measure that would have recommended school officials in the state test the outdoor air and water for pollution before they start construction on any school buildings. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t locate new schools in areas that have poor air quality,” state Rep. John Barnes says.

The EPA’s Grevatt says the agency continues to work on guidelines to help school districts determine what to consider when identifying sites for new schools. Although Congress had ordered the agency to finish by June, Grevatt says the guidelines likely won’t be completed until late this year or early next.

The EPA also says it likely will offer guidance about whether certain industries should be sited near existing schools, an issue that continues to trouble activists in Erie, Pa.; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Middletown, Ohio, where industries that release toxic chemicals want to build near schools.

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