Schools should always be safe locations for children to play, learn and grow. However, as demonstrated by the Niagara Falls School Board’s decision to build a school on top of a municipal and industrial waste site in Love Canal in 1953, children’s safety can’t always be taken for granted. Even today, hundreds of schools nationwide can be found located near industrial or Superfund sites.
In 2004 at the Oktoberfest at Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Ohio, for example, residents noticed a “weird smell” that was so strong, it left a taste and clung onto clothes. The source was a 1,500-pound chemical leak from a nearby plastic plant over the course of two days. With two more accidental releases, the school was forced to shut down in 2005 after the EPA found that the chemicals made the air so toxic that risk of developing cancer was 50 times higher than what the state considers acceptable.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence. According to data from the EPA, a shocking number of schools across the nation are exposed to high levels of dangerous chemicals in the air from nearby industrial sites. With no federal laws requiring schools to investigate potentially contaminated properties, the fate of students’ health fringes on the decisions of school boards on where their school will be built. Schools built before 1980 also put students at risk from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) exposure, where the chemical was widely used in commercial goods from the 1950s to 1979.
Exposures to these chemicals are known to have short term health problems, like respiratory and eye irritation, and devastating long term health effects such as cancers. Children living near polluted sites are often found to have developed asthma and learning disabilities.
Children can spend a large majority of their developing life in schools. CHEJ advocates for a clean and safe learning environment for all students through our Children’s Environmental Health Program which aims to protect children from toxic exposures by focusing on issues such as safe school development projects. In addition, CHEJ supports PVC-Free Schools and University initiatives that encourage schools to eliminate PVC on school sites. CHEJ also manages the Green Flag Program for Environmental Leadership which provides a framework for students to become environmental leaders and contribute to positive change in their community.