About this project
Exhausted at School is an investigation into toxic road pollution and its effect on kids’ health at school — the very place they spend hours every day. Read stories from schools across the country inside the pollution plume of our nation’s busiest highways, contributed by members of the Investigative News Network. The reporting collaboration is being led by INN and InvestigateWest, an award-winning journalism studio in Seattle. For more information about this project, which was generously supported by the IRE and Google Ideas Data Journalism Fund, please visit our about page.
When it came time in 2005 to demolish the 81-year-old Hayes Elementary school in Lakewood and build a sparkling new facility, little thought was given to reconstructing Hayes in another spot. Rebuilding on the same property – hard against Interstate 90, which carries 98,000 cars and trucks a day – was always the plan.
“We never had any complaints from parents,” said Christine Gordillo, a communications specialist with the Lakewood school district.
That sentiment has been prevalent in Ohio, which has rebuilt hundreds of schools in the last decade. Lakewood’s was like most school districts throughout the state that haven’t paid attention to a growing body of research about traffic, air pollution and children. The research shows that air pollution from highways puts kids at a greater risk of developing respiratory problems which could last a lifetime.
School officials say they have many other high-priority issues to deal with and air pollution is not on their radar. Relocating schools – in response to air quality concerns – has not been a consideration in the state’s massive school rebuilding program. Nor have other air quality policies that might mitigate the risks that come from bad air.
Research shows risk in high traffic areas
Cars and trucks emit carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter that can aggravate respiratory conditions. Research has shown that air pollution can be a risk factor for increased respiratory disorders if children are within 500 feet of major highways that carry 50,000 or more vehicles a day.
Investigative News Network, which supports non-profit news organizations, has developed data for Eye on Ohio which found that 22 public and charter schools in Ohio meet the 500-feet, 50,000-car threshold. Private schools were not included in the data.
|David H. Ponitz Career Technology||Dayton|
|McKinley High School||Canton|
|North High School||Akron|
|Centerville Primary Village||Centerville|
|Stranahan Elementary School||Sylvania City|
|Washington Park Community||Newburgh Heights|
|Cleveland College Preparatory||Cleveland|
|H. Barbara Booker Elementary||Cleveland|
|Horizon Elem. & Middle||Cleveland charter|
|Horizon Science Acad. High School||Cleveland charter|
|Sycamore Junior High School||Cincinnati|
|Ohio Avenue Elementary||Columbus|
|Cincinnati State STEM Academy||Cincinnati|
|Yorktown Middle School||Columbus|
|Arts Impact Middle School||Columbus|
|Fairwood Alternative Elementary||Columbus|
|Robinson Community Learning Center||Akron|
|Robert A. Taft Elementary||Plain Local Schools|
|Fort Hayes Arts Academy||Columbus|
|Lakota West High School||Lakota Local Schools|
“Having schools in proximity to high truck traffic, particularly diesel, has been attributed to asthma aggravation,” said Dorr Dearborn of the Mary Ann Swetland Center for Environmental Health at Case Western Reserve University.
Ohio has been building or significantly renovating new schools since the late 1990s; after legislation was passed enabling the state to match funds raised by local bond levies. Since then, a thousand new buildings or renovations have been completed, according to the office that oversees construction, the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission.
Instead of making recommendations that take health issues into account, the OFCC has let local school boards decide where the new buildings would be constructed, and that’s nearly always on the same property as the old school, even if a major highway is nearby.
“Choosing the site is left to local school boards,” says Rick Savors, a spokesperson for the OFCC.
Savors said risks from air pollution have not been considered in building decisions.
“Our folks are not aware of the research you mentioned,” he said. Savors said air quality research could be considered in the future for inclusion in the state’s design manual, a set of standards and guidelines the OFCC provides schools prior to construction.
Dearborn said high-efficiency particulate absorption, or HEPA, filter systems, can screen particulate matter from entering a building. Savors said the state does not recommend HEPA filters, but instead a filtration system now standard in most buildings that traps particulate matter that includes some auto emissions, lead dust, and mold spores.
Dearborn noted that gaseous pollution – as opposed to particulates – can penetrate a building no matter what type of filtration system is used, and that building and environmental science still hasn’t solved the problem of keeping outdoor air from coming inside.
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has spent $335 million so far on 32 new or remodeled structures and has plans to spend $220 million, though district officials have not yet decided when to place another bond levy before voters.
One of those newly rebuilt schools is near two major roadways. Buhrer Dual Language school in the Clark-Metro neighborhood, was rebuilt in 2009 near Interstate 71 and the Jennings Freeway. According to Ohio Department of Transportation traffic counts, more than 144,000 vehicles pass by the school each day.
When reconstruction plans are underway at schools such as Buhrer, typically district officials and architects, school principals and other personnel host community meetings seeking input from parents, teachers and community members.
Often in attendance are members of the Cleveland Bond Accountability Commission, a watchdog panel charged with keeping an eye on construction spending. Commission Administrator James Darr says he can’t recall the location of a school or pollution issues ever being mentioned as possible concerns.
“Our organization has not gotten into pollution. It’s a community issue. Should we spend scarce tax dollars on relocating?” he said. Attempts to reach public health and other officials at the Cleveland school district were unsuccessful. Columbus City Schools also were contacted by Eye on Ohio for comment on the location of several facilities near high traffic counts and did not receive a response.
Finding the funds for retrofits competes with other school priorities
More than 800 students attend Horizon Schools, an independent charter school consisting of air conditioned trailers for the elementary and middle school students within a hundred yards of Interstate 90 on Cleveland’s East Side. Inside a circular structure – that once was home to the Ohio Motorists Association – is the Horizon Science Academy high school.
Sharon McGraw, community relations manager for Horizon, said the building housing the high school is not state of the art and Horizon doesn’t have much money for maintenance or repairs.
Akron Public Schools have built 28 schools under the state capital improvements program and wants to build 25 more at a total cost $800 million for the 53 schools.
Robinson Community Learning Center and its 309 students are in a building that was constructed in 2008. Akron Public Schools spokesman Mark Williamson said relocating Robinson, on the city’s near east side, was never considered. Robinson is near Interstate 76 which carries 84,580 vehicles each day.
North High School sits close to State Route 8 in Akron’s North Hills neighborhood and is slated to be rebuilt in the school district‘s next construction phase, although Akron school officials have not announced when that will be.
“Perhaps if your report is loud enough, architects would consider it (relocation) in the future,” Williamson said. ODOT’s traffic count figures show more than a hundred thousand cars pass by the section of Route 8 near North High each day.
Respiratory problems are critical health issues in Ohio
Schools are required to keep track of students who use asthma inhalers and those contacted for this story were sensitive to the needs of children with respiratory problems. But neither the districts contacted for this story nor state officials could cite policies for how to address poor air quality, for example, whether students should be kept inside when pollution from traffic is particularly bad.
Air pollution from traffic is one of many factors contributing to asthma and other respiratory conditions. Asthma also is linked to allergies, obesity and indoor pests such as cockroaches.
But bad air- according to many studies – does play a role in respiratory illness, and asthma is on the rise in Ohio.
A 2010 study [pdf] by the Ohio Department of Health reported that 417,567 Ohio children, or 15.2% of the population under age 18, have asthma. A health department spokesperson said that between 2010 and 2012, the number of children who have asthma grew by another 21,000.
Case Western Reserve’s Dearborn said that completely moving a school – especially one not even scheduled for reconstruction – is not realistic for most districts. For schools that are being rebuilt or renovated, a retrofit with HEPA filters, or even relocation should be considered, he said.
Air quality near children, he said, “should be a significant component on a list of concerns” when it comes to capital improvements for schools.
Yearly reports by the American Lung Association validate the need to take air quality in Ohio more seriously.
According to the association’s 2013 “State of the Air” report, the air in Ohio’s major metropolitan areas may be putting the health of their citizens at risk. Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Akron all received F’s, or failing grades, for ozone pollution and particulate matter from the ALA’s annual report based on information through 2011. Toledo received a D on the association’s grading scale.
The association came up with its grading system by using U.S. Environmental Protection data which measures short-term and long-term ozone and particulate matter concentrations and counted the number of “unhealthy” air days – or days in which air quality did not meet federal standards for clean air.
STUDIES AND RESEARCH
Not in My Schoolyard: 2006 report prepared for the US EPA by Rhode Island Legal Services. Includes state-by-state look at regulations regarding school siting near transportation lines (including roads and railroads), starting p. 58
National survey of school proximity to roadways (Appatova et al., 2008): A national look by the University of Cincinnati on the number of schools within 100m and 400m of highways. Includes citations to numerous studies about health effects of traffic pollution.
Traffic pollution effects on schoolchildren: 1993 German study establishing correlation between traffic exhaust and respiratory issues in children
San Francisco schoolchildren study: 2001 study by the California EPA on health effects of traffic pollution on children in San Francisco schools. This study helped support the passage of the California law requiring 500-foot setback from busy highways.
Air pollution and early deaths in the United States (Caiazzo et al., 2013): New study using 2005 data finding total combustion emissions in the U.S. account for about 200,000 premature deaths per year in the U.S. The largest contributors are road transportation. Disaggregates data by state and major metros.