ebyThis is for Paul, who first directed me to "Google Justus Gage smokestack."

Archived Story

John Eby: USA Today report first Dowagiac mention since 2007

Published 9:52am Monday, August 31, 2009

This portal brought me out in a thicket of statistical data pertaining to USA Today’s ambitious special report, “The Smokestack Effect,” about toxic air schools breathe if situated near factories.

Figuring it pertained to something published a day or two before, I contacted Superintendent Peg Stowers and Dowagiac District Library Director Mike Shamalla, but they hadn’t heard of this report, either.

So I e-mailed former Dowagiac resident and Vigilant/Argus managing editor Jim Sergent, who will be marking his 11th anniversary at USA Today in October. He even designed some of the pages for this project.

This was the day after Sen. Ted Kennedy died and USA Today overnight had produced a 40-page commemorative section, though Jim feared it wouldn’t sell as big as their Michael Jackson keepsake edition.

Jim also searched their archive to determine it was the Grand Old City’s first mention since 2007, when this appeared with a Dowagiac dateline: “The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians will for the first time hold its annual powwow on its own grounds after having completed facilities at Rodgers Lake, its tribal headquarters. The 22nd annual Kee-Boon-Mein-Kaa Pow Wow will feature dancers competing from throughout the Great Lakes. The celebration is scheduled over Labor Day weekend.”

USA Today on Wednesday, June 24, reported the air outside 435 other schools from Maine to California appears to be even worse than a closed elementary school in Addyston, a Cincinnati suburb along the Ohio River.

Using the government’s most up-to-date model for tracking toxic chemicals, USA Today spent eight months examining the impact of industrial pollution in the air outside schools across the nation.

That front page carried coverage of Ed McMahon’s death, President Obama sharpening his response on Iran and “Refocusing the American Dream” for the recession generation just starting out.

Young people find the game changed and brace for a lower standard of living.

Also, a survey showed one in five teens has “sexted”; 13- to 18-year-olds mostly send risque photos to boyfriends or girlfriends.

June 24 was the day I went around Dowagiac with Hallie Jessup to shoot the photos of Town and Country Garden Club Beautification Contest winners, which I enjoy because I have a black thumb and could kill a plastic plant.

The model was a computer simulation that predicts the path of toxic chemicals released by thousands of companies.

USA Today used it to identify schools in toxic hot spots – a task the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had never undertaken.

What resulted is a ranking of 127,800 public, private and parochial schools based on the concentrations and health hazards of chemicals likely to be in the air outside.

The model’s most recent version used emissions reports filed by 20,000 industrial sites in 2005 – the year that Addyston, Ohio, school closed and the “growl of air-monitoring equipment replaced the chatter of children.”

School district officials there pulled all students after air samples outside the building showed high levels of chemicals coming from a plastics plant across the street.

The levels were so dangerous the EPA concluded the risk of getting cancer there was 50 times higher than what the state considers acceptable.

Potential problems that emerged were “insidious, widespread and largely unaddressed.”

At Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in East Chicago, Ind., the model indicated levels of manganese more than a dozen times higher than what the government considers safe.

The metal can cause mental and emotional problems after long exposures.

Three factories within blocks of the school located in one of the most impoverished areas of the state combined to release more than six tons of it in a single year.

The newspaper quoted the superintendent as saying when you start talking about manganese it doesn’t register with people in poverty who have bigger issues with which to deal.

A middle school in West Virginia sits close to a cluster of plants that “chum out” tens of thousands of pounds of toxic gases in metals a year.

Another location in West Virginia showed high levels of nickel outside an elementary school. Nickel can harm lungs and cause cancer.

At an elementary school in Texas, data indicated carcinogens at levels even higher than prompted the Ohio school shutdown.

A recent University of Texas study showed an association between an increased risk of childhood cancer and proximity to the Houston ship channel two miles from a school.

The 435 schools that ranked worst weren’t confined to industrial centers.

Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania had the highest numbers, but the worst schools extended from the East Coast to the West in 170 cities across 34 states.

In some school districts, emissions from the smokestacks of refineries or chemical plants threatened students of every age – “preschool through prom.”

Outside those schools, reports from polluters themselves often indicated a dozen different chemicals in the air.

All are considered toxic, though few have been tested for specific effects on children.
Scientists have long known that kids are particularly susceptible to such dangers.

They breathe more air in proportion to their weight than adults do. And their bodies are still developing.

Based on time they spent at school, their exposure could last for years, but the impact might not become clear for decades.

That was the case in Texas, where more than two dozen former students of a high school have been diagnosed with cancer several years after they graduated, according to court records.

So far, 17 have reached legal settlements with petrochemical plants located less than a mile from the school in court filings.

Plant operators denied they were to blame for the illnesses.

U.S. EPA, which has a special office charged with protecting children’s health, has invested millions of taxpayer dollars in pollution models that could help identify schools where toxic chemicals saturate the air.

Even so, USA Today’s investigation found, the agency has all but ignored examining whether the air is unsafe at the very locations where kids are required to gather.

If regulators had used their own pollution models to look for schools in toxic hot spots, they would have discovered what USA Today found – locations in small towns such as Lucedale, Miss., and Oro Grande, Calif., as well as in large cities such as Houston, where the government’s own data indicated the air outside schools was more toxic than the air outside the shuttered school in the Cincinnati area.

A chart ranked Michigan 12th with an air-related cancer risk of 36.9 per 1 million, a bit higher than the national average, 36; highest were New York, 53.3; Oregon, 52.1; and California, 47.

Wayne and Oakland were the only Michigan counties in the top 50 nationally for cancer risks from breathing toxic chemicals.

John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at john.eby @leaderpub.com.

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