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Is the air dirty near your child's school?

Jones Elementary did poorly in a USA TODAY pollution study, but officials want to do their own test

POSTED: December 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

A school bus from Myers Elementary School passes by Cottrell Inc. on Tuesday on Candler Road. According to a study released online by USA TODAY, Myers Elementary ranked in the 9th percentile for schools with the worst air quality in the country. Cottrell Inc. and Indalex Inc. are among the polluters most responsible for the toxins outside the school, according to the study.

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Some Hall County school officials were caught off guard last week when they heard about a USA TODAY online report called "The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools."

They assumed there wasn’t anything to worry about in Hall, which really hasn’t had any "smokestack" industries in years.

But one local school, Jones Elementary, ranked in the 1st percentile, meaning that its outdoor air quality was allegedly worse than 99 percent of schools in the nation.

Two other schools, Lyman Hall Elementary and Lanier Career Academy, were in the 2nd percentile. Myers Elementary ranked in the 9th percentile.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Wauka Mountain Elementary near Clermont scored in the 80th percentile, giving it the "cleanest" air in Hall.

No other Northeast Georgia counties had schools that ranked near the top of the list. The eight schools in White County, for example, all scored between the 86th and 89th percentile.

Even though Jones Elementary ranked in the 1st percentile, it still wasn’t considered among the worst schools in Georgia for air quality. According to the report, those schools are located in Columbus, Dalton and LaGrange.

Hank Ramey, principal at Jones Elementary, said he was mystified by the USA TODAY report.

"We were surprised to see that," he said. "The air always seems so clean here. It’s a calm, peaceful environment. It feels like a rural setting."

Jones is located in the Chicopee Woods area, not far from Elachee Nature Science Center.

"This is not the sort of place you would associate with chemicals or cancer-causing agents," said Ramey. "I question the validity of (the report), because we’re not on the doorstep of a factory."

To understand why Jones was ranked so high on the list, you have to look at the methodology of the USA TODAY reporters. They ranked 127,800 public, private and parochial schools throughout the nation, but they didn’t actually test the air at most of these sites.

Instead, they used the Toxic Release Inventory, a database compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency using information voluntarily submitted by industries. Companies with a certain amount of emissions are asked to disclose how many pounds of chemicals they release to air, land and water.

The database has a two-year lag time, so the most recent inventory is based on 2006 information. The USA TODAY reporters used the 2005 inventory, which was the most up-to-date version available when they did their research.

Using an EPA computer simulation that projects the likely path of chemical releases, the reporters then plugged the addresses of schools into their models.

If the modeling showed that a particular school would be downwind of a chemical plume, that school was ranked high on the list in terms of the health risk for children.

Of course, the risk would be not just for students. Anybody who lived in the vicinity of the school would presumably have the same exposure. But researchers decided to focus on children because their young bodies still are developing, making them more susceptible to environmental illnesses such as cancer.

The report looks at exposure both to cancer-causing chemicals and to non-carcinogenic toxins that may have other effects, such as lung damage.

By typing a school name into the database, people can find out which industries are located near their school, what types of chemicals are being emitted and what are the possible health risks of those substances.

For both Jones and Lyman Hall, the companies listed as contributing the most pollution are Indalex, MD Building Products, Stork Gamco, Tomco2 Equipment and Cottrell Inc.

About three-fourths of the "toxicity" near these schools is attributed to diisocyanates. Other chemicals mentioned include xylene, trimethylbenzene, glycol ethers and naphthalene.

Indalex, located on Old Oakwood Road, makes extruded aluminum products which are often painted.

"Xylene and glycol ethers are common compounds in paint," said Indalex spokesman Scott Langdon.

However, the company has a machine called a "Roxidizer" that prevents most of these chemicals from getting outside the plant. "It destroys 95 percent of the hazardous air pollutants," said Langdon.

He added that the company increasingly is using an environmentally friendly type of paint that contains no solvents.

Cottrell Inc., a Candler Road company that makes automobile trailers, is included on the list because of its manganese emissions. Manganese is a trace mineral that can cause brain damage with prolonged exposure.

But Sean Blair, director of environmental health and safety at Cottrell, said the emissions are too small to put anyone at risk.

"We’re in compliance with all federal and state regulations," he said.

Diisocyanates are compounds used to manufacture insulation, paints and other materials, particularly for the automobile industry. They can cause asthma and other respiratory diseases, and are considered a potential carcinogen.

Supposedly, diisocyanates are the major health risk to schools such as Jones and Lyman Hall. But it turns out that none of the Hall companies located near these schools are emitting diisocyanates.

Instead, the closest listed source is Tomco2 Equipment Co. That’s in Loganville, in Gwinnett County.

This calls into question the accuracy of the computer models used. The report may be unfairly branding schools as "toxic" when their outdoor air quality is not significantly different from others in the county.

Hall County school officials are not taking the report at face value. They’ve decided to conduct their own investigation.

Mike McDowell, director of environmental services for Pioneer RESA, said he has had discussions with Hall officials about hiring a contractor to test the air quality outside Jones Elementary.

"Everything is circumstantial," McDowell said of the way the study was conducted. "This kind of stuff makes great headlines because it’s inflammatory to parents. But I think it would be jumping the gun to assume that Jones has any kind of problem. I’ve not heard of any particular complaints from Jones or any other Hall County school."

Mamie Coker, health services coordinator for Hall County Schools, said she has not observed increased rates of illness in children at high-ranked schools such as Jones or Lyman Hall.

"Of course, with cancer you may not see effects for years down the road," she said.

Ramey said he hasn’t heard any complaints about air quality at Jones, and he doubts that any students are at risk.

"But it will be interesting to see the results of our own testing," he said. "I’m glad the (school system) is taking this seriously enough to make sure everything’s OK."

McDowell said there’s no timeline for when the testing will be completed, and they haven’t decided yet whether the testing will include other schools besides Jones.



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