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Polluting Our Kids' Report Cards

The report card was a jumble of Cs and Ds. As my coworker gazed over his kid's latest performance in school, a mixture of anger, disappointment, frustration, guilt and uncertainty flooded him. "Where did I go wrong?" he mumbled. No doubt his kid felt a mixture of emotion, too.

Report cards can be grueling for parents and kids alike. Poor performance in school is a hot button social issue, and one that's been studied and debated from many angles—but we may be giving short shrift to one of its roots: air pollution.

A research team led by the University of Michigan's Dr. Paul Mohai recently looked into the links between air pollution and academic success, and the results are alarming.

Mohai and co. found that 62.5 percent of Michigan's 3,660 public schools—from the elementary to high school level—are located in areas of high air pollution from industry. Within this subset of schools, the researchers discovered the lowest attendance rates statewide, an indicator of poor health, and also the highest proportion of students who fell short of the state's testing standards for math and English.

And it's saddening but not surprising that 81.5 percent of all African-American kids in the state and 62.1 percent of Hispanic students attend schools located in the top 10 percent of areas with the worst pollution. It is well-established that air pollution disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income communities. That is the very essence of the environmental justice movement in this country—to acknowledge and address such environmental disparities, and particularly to elevate them to the national consciousness.

Dr. Mohai was quoted today in a USA Today article, saying that "these patterns appear strong enough that they need to be taken seriously." Very seriously, especially because this concerns childrens' health. Their developing bodies are particularly susceptible to air pollution, as witnesses reminded Congress yesterday during a Senate hearing on air pollution and child health. The health and well-being of children—the future of our society—should be of paramount concern.

USA Today reporters Brad Heath and Blake Morrison deserve a lot of credit for helping the issue of toxic air at our nation's schools get the attention it deserves. Blake and Morrison authored a special report called "The Smokestack Effect," which used an EPA model to examine air quality at 128,000 schools across the country, ultimately finding air quality problems that were "widespread, insidious and largely unaddressed." In response to their journalism, the Environmental Protection Agency is now in the process of monitoring air quality at 63 schools in 22 states.

The results of the EPA's monitoring have turned up some troubling discoveries. Potentially dangerous levels of manganese, a neurotoxin that can cause mental and emotional problems, were discovered outside of three schools in Ohio and West Virginia. Elevated levels of cadmium, a carcinogen, were found outside a school in Portland, OR. When you consider that the EPA is only monitoring air quality at 63 schools, these findings are alarming.  

The EPA must invest in a regimen of monitoring and reporting that functions to keep our schoolyards free of health-damaging pollution. Being a kid is challenge enough without having to suffer because of dirty air. We owe our children a great deal more.