Air pollution is dangerously high around schools near some U.S. industrial plants, according to a recent study involving researchers from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University.
The study, conducted by USA Today reporters, examined air pollution levels near schools around the U.S. over an eight month period. They used a computer model from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that tracks the paths of industrial air pollution around the United States to predict the areas of highest air pollution. The USA Today reporters then partnered with university researchers, including Amir Sapkota of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, to monitor the air quality around schools in areas predicted to have both low and high levels of pollution.
The researchers found high levels of toxins, including volatile organic compounds (VOC) and fine particulate matter, in the air near schools in the path of industrial pollution. Most of the affected schools were located on the East Coast and in the Midwest with the largest numbers in states like Illinois, New York, Louisiana and West Virginia . In many cases, toxin levels were much higher than those considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. In some cases, the pollution was high enough to cause concern for long term adverse health effects.
"The study brings the air pollution problem to the forefront and shows that we need to pay more attention," said Sapkota. "By making people aware of the problem so that they can take action, this study serves an important purpose."
Sapkota helped measure and identify the VOCs collected from around the designated monitoring sites. VOCs are organic compounds that react to produce ozone (photochemical smog) and fine particulate matter or haze. They are found in emissions from burning oil and gasoline, as well as in cleaners, paints and tobacco smoke. They can cause both short- and long-term health effects.
Another researcher, Patrick Breysse of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, analyzed the metallic compounds collected from the air.
The study focused on schools because children are required by law to be there for long periods of time. This prolongs their exposure to any chemicals that might pollute the surrounding air. Children are most susceptible to these compounds because their bodies are small and in the process of developing.
"Exposure to a certain amount of toxin in a child is not the same as the exposure of an adult to the same amount of toxin," Sapkota said. "Because the child weighs less, he or she is exposed to more toxin per unit of body weight than an adult." Sapkota believes the next step is for the schools that are in these toxic hotspots to do more monitoring, especially of their indoor air quality, to assess the extent of the problem.
"The monitoring in this study was conducted outdoors," said Sapkota. "That doesn't necessarily mean that the toxin concentration is the same indoors, where people spend most of their time."
According to the EPA, the concentration of VOCs indoors can be up to ten times higher than concentrations outside. Air filters cannot remove gaseous VOCs from the air.
Sapkota also emphasized that everyday pollutants do not just come from industry. "VOCs also come from cleaning solvents, furniture, stored gasoline, and car exhaust, all of which can be found in or near our houses," he said.
He says individuals can help reduce VOC exposure by taking certain actions, such as choosing cleaning products with low VOC s, and taking public transportation rather than driving individual cars.
"The primary reason for taking action is that air pollution affects our health," Sapkota said. "We want to prevent people from getting sick and to do that we must remove or minimize exposure to air pollution."
The findings were published on the front page of USA Today on December 10, 2008.
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