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Many US public schools are in an air pollution danger zone

CINCINNATI—One in three U.S. public schools are in the "air pollution danger zone," according to new research from the University of Cincinnati (UC).

UC researchers have found that more than 30 percent of American public schools are within 400 meters, or a quarter mile, of major highways that consistently serve as main truck and traffic routes.

Research has shown that proximity to major highways—and thus environmental pollutants, such as aerosolizing diesel exhaust particles—can leave school-age children more susceptible to respiratory diseases later in life.

"This is a major public health concern that should be given serious consideration in future urban development, transportation planning and environmental policies," says Sergey Grinshpun, PhD, principal investigator of the study and professor of environmental health at UC.

To protect the health of young children with developing lungs, he says new schools should be built further from major highways.

"Health risk can be mitigated through proper urban planning, but that doesn't erase the immediate risk to school-age children attending schools that are too close to highways right now," he adds. "Existing schools should be retrofitted with air filtration systems that will reduce students' exposure to traffic pollutants."

The UC-led team reports its findings in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, an international scientific journal. This is believed to be the first national study of school proximity and health risks associated with major roadways.

For this study, Grinshpun's team conducted a survey of major metropolitan areas representative of all geographical regions of the United States: Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Denver, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Memphis, Minneapolis and San Antonio.

More than 8,800 schools representing 6 million students were included in the survey. Primary data was collected through the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

Schools within this data set were then geocoded to accurately calculate distance to the nearest interstate, U.S. highway or state highway.

Past research on highway-related air pollution exposure has focused on residences located close to major roads. Grinshpun points out, however, that school-age children spend more than 30 percent of their day on school grounds—in classrooms, after-school care or extracurricular activities.

"For many years, our focus has been on homes when it comes to air pollution. School attendance may result in a large dose of inhaled traffic pollutants that—until now—have been completely overlooked," he adds.

These past studies suggest this proximity to highway traffic puts school-age children at an increased risk for asthma and respiratory problems later in life from air pollutants and aeroallergens.

This includes research from the UC Cincinnati Childhood Allergy and Air Pollution Study (CCAAPS) which has reported that exposure to traffic pollutants in close proximity to main roads has been associated with increased risk for asthma and other chronic respiratory problems during childhood.

Grinshpun's team found that public school students were more likely to attend schools near major highways compared to the general population. Researchers say the rapid expansion of metropolitan areas in recent years—deemed "urban sprawl"—seems to be associated with the consistent building of schools near highways.

"Major roads play an important role in the economy, but we need to strike a balance between economic and health considerations as we break ground on new areas," says Alexandra Appatova, the study's first author. "Policymakers need to develop new effective strategies that would encourage urban planners to reconsider our current infrastructure, particularly when it comes to building new schools and maintaining existing ones."

The state of California, for example, has passed a law prohibiting the building of new schools within 500 feet (168 meters) of a busy road. New Jersey is moving a bill through the legislature to require highway entrance and exit ramps to be at least 1,000 feet from schools.

The study appears in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.


This study was funded in part by grants from UC's Center for Sustainable Urban Engineering and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. UC's Patrick Ryan, PhD, and Grace LeMasters, PhD, also participated in this study. Appatova was an intern in UC's department of environmental health when the study was being conducted.

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Good teachers and a rigorous curriculum aren’t the only things parents should consider when choosing a school for their kids. How close the school is to a major highway should also be taken into account.

A recent study found the air around schools near busy highways contains significant levels of environmental pollutants, which could pose health problems for students — even when they’re indoors. The study, published in the September issue of the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, reviewed nine cities across the country, including Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles and San Antonio. Data were collected through the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education from 8,800 schools serving 6 million students.

"We found a striking number of schools — about a third — have been built within 400 meters [about a quarter of a mile] of a major highway," says senior author Sergey Grinshpun, professor of environmental health and director of the Center for Health-Related Aerosol Studies at the University of Cincinnati. About 12% were within 100 meters, or 328 feet.

Other studies, he adds, have suggested a possible fallout from such proximity: children living within 100 meters of highways have higher incidence of wheezing, potentially a precursor to more serious illnesses such as asthma. Those within the 400-meter range have lung development issues. Not all states have laws about schools being a specific distance from freeways, but California does. The state passed legislation in 2003 mandating that if a proposed school site is within 500 feet (152 meters, about a tenth of a mile) of a busy freeway or traffic corridor that averages more than 100,000 vehicles per day in urban areas, the district has to establish whether or not the air quality poses a significant health risk to students.

Grinshpun isn’t calling for the abandonment of existing schools near highways, but he does suggest ideas that schools and communities should consider: building new schools farther away from major thoroughfares, outfitting schools with more efficient air filtration systems that can filter out harmful air particles, and limiting outdoor activity time to when traffic flow is lowest.

"We hope to attract public attention to this striking data, given how big a role highways play in the U.S. economy," says Grinshpun, "and to call for a synergy of two approaches: a recognition of the balance between economic issues and health considerations. If the policy makers could take a look and develop something with a good balance between the two, that’s something we would be happy to see."