USA Today vs EPA on Schoolyard Air

Recently, USA Today published a series of alarming articles about air pollution near schools. It plotted school locations against results from an EPA model, and found that 435 were likely to have dangerous levels of pollution; then, it took air samples near 95 schools and found elevated levels of toxic chemicals outside 64 of them.

Although the series doesn’t contain all of the details I was looking for about how USA Today made its determinations, one key point is clear: EPA is not using its chemicals-release information to see where schoolchildren might be exposed to dangerous levels of air pollutants. This is from the main article, by Blake Morrison and Brad Health:

What the agency hasn’t done is use its models, as USA TODAY did, to look for potential problems around schools — then follow up by testing for toxic chemicals. “Honestly, it didn’t occur to me to do this study when I was there, and if it had, we would’ve initiated it,” says [Ramona] Trovato, who directed the EPA’s children’s health office from 1997 to 2002.

“This isn’t something you want to ignore,” she says of what USA TODAY found. “If I were still in that job, the only thing I’d feel is, ‘I wish I’d thought of it.’ ”

The current head of the children’s health protection office, Ruth McCully, sees her role differently. “It’s not my job responsibility to initiate those types of activities,” says McCully, who took over this year. “Do I personally have any idea of the chemicals that might be outside kids’ schools? Well, I’m not going to answer that,” she says. “I’m not out there doing air monitoring.”

That’s precisely the problem, critics contend: a lack of urgency and initiative on the part of EPA.

“That’s the argument EPA puts up: ‘We don’t know so we don’t have to act,’” says Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, an advocacy group that focuses on children and schools.

Reporters reviewed agency correspondence and found that an EPA advisory committee had called for EPA to develop better information about children’s exposure to toxic chemicals, and in 2002 they specifically urged the agency administrator to take a more aggressive approach to “environmental health threats at schools.”

The EPA didn’t act on this urging from its advisory committee, but it’s about to get pressure from a more powerful source. Two days after the first USA Today article ran, Morrison and Heath reported that Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer has pledged to ensure that EPA started monitoring the air outside schools. A spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s environmental agency told the paper that they’d start testing the air ASAP outside seven schools that USA Today picked for its air monitoring.

Kudos to USA Today for undertaking this project. It takes a lot of resources to do this kind of research and produce this kind of in-depth story. The additional revenue they’ll see from this probably won’t be that impressive – but hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren could potentially benefit from lawmakers’ and agencies’ increased attention to the issue.

There are a couple of things I wish that the series had gone into more detail about, though. First, I’d like to know more about exactly what kinds of levels landed schools in the group of 435 or 64. The 435 schools are described as having air that appears to be worse than that of the Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Addyston, Ohio, which was closed after the state placed air monitors on the school’s roof for several months and found that “two chemicals from the plastics plant [across the street] were drifting over the school at levels that made the risk of cancer 50 times higher than what the state considers acceptable.” (The air monitors were placed after a local advocacy group following up on reports of bad smells found that the plastics plant had reported large accidental releases of chemicals.)

I´m also interested to know more about the newspaper’s use of the EPA model. Here’s how it’s described:

Using the government’s most up-to-date model for tracking toxic chemicals, USA TODAY spent eight months examining the impact of industrial pollution on the air outside schools across the nation. The model is a computer simulation that predicts the path of toxic chemicals released by thousands of companies.

The result: a ranking of 127,800 public, private and parochial schools based on the concentrations and health hazards of chemicals likely to be in the air outside. The model’s most recent version used emissions reports filed by 20,000 industrial sites in 2005, the year Hitchens closed.

[...]

To identify locations where dangers appear greatest, USA TODAY used a mathematical model, developed by the EPA, called Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators. It estimates how toxic chemicals are dispersed across the nation and in what quantities.

According to EPA’s website, Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators is “a computer-based screening tool developed by EPA that analyzes risk factors to put Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) release data into a chronic health context.” The agency emphasizes the screening aspect:

RSEI is a screening-level model because it uses simplifying assumptions to fill data gaps and reduce the complexity of calculations. RSEI should be used for screening level activities, such as trend analysis, or ranking regions, states, counties, industries, chemicals, facilities, or release pathways for follow-up activities. All RSEI results should be followed up with additional analysis. RSEI is not a formal risk assessment and does not describe a specific level of risk related to any particular disease; rather, it highlights situations that may lead to potential chronic human health risks. …

RSEI considers the following information:

• Amount of chemical released
• Location of that release
• Toxicity of the chemical
• Fate and transport through the environment
• Route and extent of human exposure
• Number of people affected

This information is used to create numerical values (RSEI scores) , which can be added and compared in limitless ways to other RSEI scores to assess the relative hazard and risk of chemicals, facilities, regions, industries, or many other factors. The scores are for comparative purposes and are only meaningful when compared to other scores produced by RSEI. Again, the result does not provide a detailed or quantitative risk assessment, but offers a screening-level perspective for relative comparisons of chemical releases.

So, if USA Today was using this model, what it was getting back wasn’t specific information about the amount of chemical X in location Y; it was more of a preliminary pointer as to which areas might be more polluted than others and thus merit further assessment. I imagine the newspaper followed up with actual air monitoring at 95 of the schools because they understood that the model was giving them leads rather than results.

There will be a temptation to look at this series and say “If USA Today was able to do it, EPA should be able to do it, too.” If EPA does decide to start monitoring on and reporting on pollution near schools, it will have to do something far more rigorous and involved than what USA Today has done. As this article series has demonstrated, though, it’s a task worth undertaking, because too many schoolchildren are breathing polluted air.