School Climate & Safety

Schools Urged To Be Wary Of Polluted Sites

By Alan Richard — March 21, 2001 4 min read
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Laws should be strengthened to protect children from attending schools built on or near chemically polluted sites, and districts should follow stricter environmental guidelines when selecting the future location of school buildings, a report by a national advocacy campaign urges.

The report, “Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visible Actions,” was scheduled for release March 19 by the Child Proofing Our Communities: Poisoned School Campaign, a group of 43 organizations dedicated to protecting children from exposure to environmental health hazards in schools, homes, and communities.

Lois Gibbs, who led protests some 20 years ago to clean up a toxic-waste site in Love Canal, N.Y., wrote the 79-page report with her colleagues at the nonprofit Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, based in Falls Church, Va. The report includes more than two dozen case studies of schools built on or near contaminated sites, or where children have been exposed to pesticide use in and around school buildings. Ms. Gibbs said many of the examples came from calls to her office during the past 18 months.

For More Information

The report, “Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visable Actions,” is available from the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice

“It just makes me totally outraged,” she said in an interview.

The report points to rising rates of cancer among children and the pervasiveness of childhood asthma, which the authors see as evidence that polluted school sites can create possible health hazards.

Relocating a School

The nation’s best-known case of a polluted school site is the Belmont Learning Center in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has cost the 723,000-student district more than $250 million so far. (“Sticker Shock: $200 Million for an L.A. High School,” April 7, 1999.)

The huge high school building, which was to include offices and retail stores near downtown Los Angeles, remains only a shell, unfinished more than three years after construction began. The Los Angeles school board continues to debate the future of the school, located on an abandoned oil field, and a local prosecutor recently announced possible new evidence of broken environmental laws.

Another case has unfolded in the River Valley school district on the edge of Marion, Ohio, where school leaders are combining federal, state, and local money for the $43.5 million relocation of a combined high school-middle school campus and athletic fields from the current site atop a contaminated former military- supply depot.

Thomas G. Shade, the superintendent of the 1,750-student district, said a six-acre section of the 78-acre campus has been fenced off to prevent exposure to high levels of contaminants in the soil.

Cancer rates among students in the school are “statistically high,” he said, but no direct evidence has been found to link the illnesses with the contamination of the site. Case studies of the sick students are continuing.

Mr. Shade said state environmental officials have tested the site regularly and assure him that the campus is safe.

Nevertheless, the district has worked to relocate the campus, and it secured state and federal financial help. Local taxpayers also approved a $19.6 million bond issue in November to pay for some of the new construction, in addition to building two elementary schools.

Ms. Gibbs of the Child Proofing Our Communities campaign contends that states and districts can avoid such problems through an early and complete assessment of any potential school site to check for dangers, including asking questions about the site’s history.

Avoiding Trouble

The report recommends that districts adopt strict standards for selecting school sites, including full community participation in the process, a complete evaluation of the sites’ environmental histories, and a prohibition on school construction within 1,000 feet of any known contamination.

But Ms. Gibbs acknowledged that such standards will pose a challenge in some industrial and urban communities. “It’s not a cheap endeavor,” she said.

At the state level, the report suggests that states follow California’s example. Legislation passed in 1999 requires the state to help districts conduct environmental testing. It also created a more efficient permit process through the California Department of Toxic Substances and Control, which helps determine the safety of school sites.

But for school leaders who make decisions about construction projects, the possibility of more regulations may be the last thing they would want.

“I’m not so sure there’s not laws already on the books” that would prevent the kind of contamination found in River Valley, said Mr. Shade, the local superintendent. Although he supports any effort to guarantee students’ safety, he’s not convinced that additional bureaucratic solutions would help.

Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., said the issue of contaminated school sites hasn’t been a major focus of her organization’s student health and safety initiatives.

“It may be an increasing concern if we’re going to start building [schools across the nation] again,” she said.

Ms. Gibbs said she understands how cumbersome new rules may be, but she insists that students’ health is worth it.

She recalls a visit to the home of a parent activist in Ohio, where she met three students with leukemia.

“They all had their bone-marrow donors there,” Ms. Gibbs said. “Their lives are totally destroyed and it didn’t have to happen.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Schools Urged To Be Wary Of Polluted Sites

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