EPA to monitor air near some schools

Posted March 02, 2009, at 9:17 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency soon will begin testing the air around schools for toxic contaminants.

The $2.25 million program announced Monday would be the first to specifically target air contamination near schools. The EPA already operates a nationwide monitoring network that collects information on air pollutants.

The school monitors will focus on toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer, respiratory and neurological problems — especially in children, who are more susceptible than adults because they are still growing.

Initially, states and local governments will monitor the air at 50 to 100 schools located near large industrial facilities or in cities where a variety of sources can lead to high concentrations of pollution.

The agency expects the monitoring to begin in 30 days.

“Questions have been raised about air quality around some U.S. schools, and those questions merit investigation,” said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.

But it is unclear what the agency can do about it if it finds that some pollutants are posing risks on school grounds. There are no federal standards for the 188 chemicals classified as air toxics. It also can be difficult to trace a pollution problem back to a specific source.

A series of articles published in USA Today last December ranked more than 120,000 schools nationwide on projected — not actual — industrial pollution levels. The newspaper used computer modeling and EPA data to project the levels of potentially toxic chemicals near schools. A major intent of the series, according to the paper, was to highlight the lack of monitoring near schools.

Several Maine schools scored poorly on the report. In fact, two schools in the small Aroostook County town of Easton were rated as potentially having among the worst air quality in the nation.

But Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials disagreed with the paper’s projections, particularly in the town of Easton. DEP officials said the analysis used outdated information and dramatically overstated the health threat of a chemical used at a factory near the Easton schools. The DEP collects more detailed emissions statistics than those gathered by the EPA.

It was unclear Monday whether any of the EPA monitoring sites would be in Maine.

BDN writer Kevin Miller in Bangor contributed to this report.

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