The Smokestack Effect

An investigative report by USAToday brought me to tears this morning.

Granted, I am a particularly emotional person at a period of transition in my life. I just started a new job (here, with Public Citizen!) in a new town (loving Austin already), and am living out of a suitcase. Things are rather in flux, and my emotional state may have followed suit. But I think that even beyond all that, USA Today’s recent report finally made air toxics issues hit home.

Cesar Chavez High School In Houston, TX

USAToday’s report, entitled “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools”, ranks 127,800 schools nationwide based upon the concentrations and health hazards of the chemicals likely to be in the surrounding air.

The report was initiated after Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Addyston, Ohio was closed due to the danger posed by the surrounding air. Air monitors placed near the school recorded extremely high levels of toxics coming from the plastics plant across the street. When the Ohio EPA determined that students were being exposed to cancer at levels 50 times higher than what the state deems an acceptable risk, the school was shut down.

Following this story, USAToday spent 8 months examining the extent and danger of schools located in toxic hot spots. Using the EPA’s own models for tracking toxic industrial chemicals, USAToday found 435 schools across the country with air quality worse than that which caused the closure of Hitchens Elementary School. Though the Environmental Protection Agency has a special office dedicated to protecting children’s health, the agency has never used their own data or models to look at potential problems surrounding schools. Nor does the office set health and safety standards for children in schools, as they do for adults in the workplace.

Philip Landrigan, a physician who heads Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s children’s health and the environment unit, comments on this problem in the article:

“The mere fact that kids are being exposed ought to be enough to force people to pay attention. The problem here is, by and large, there’s no cop on the beat. Nobody’s paying attention.”

Children are particularly susceptible to the health risks associated with toxic chemical exposure. Because or their small size, children breathe in more air in relation to their weight than adults. Their bodies are also still in a formative state, making early exposure all the more dangerous. And since kids are required to spend so many childhood hours in school, toxins are likely to accumulate in their bodies and not cause problems until years later.

Unfortunately, the names of several Texas schools peppered this national article. The first was San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park:

“At San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park, Texas, data indicated carcinogens at levels even higher than the readings that prompted the shutdown of Hitchens. A recent University of Texas study showed an “association” between an increased risk of childhood cancer and proximity to the Houston Ship Channel, about 2 miles from the school.”

The USAToday report’s findings were based upon EPA data and industry estimates. That means, unfortunately, that even what they’ve reported “may be a gross underestimate”, because industries only estimate their emissions. For the most part, dangerous chemical carcinogens such as benzene and butadiene are not monitored because they are not regulated by the EPA. USAToday’s report suggested that Deer Park might be a hot spot particularly worthy of such monitoring because students are exposed to very high levels of carcinogens at area elementary, middle, and high schools – that is, throughout every level of their education and development.

Port Neches-Groves High School in Port Neches, Texas, was featured as a major part of the report. That’s because 27 graduates of Port Neches schools have sued the chemical plants there or there former owners after being diagnosed with cancer… For decades, factories that make plastics and rubber just blocks from Port Neches schools released butadiene into the air at harmful levels. Monitors in 1989 showed levels of butadiene 4 times higher than Texas’s safety standard. In 2003, levels were 120 times the state standard. Since then, the state made the chemical plants upgrade their equipment to minimize emissions, and butadiene levels have fallen dramatically.

The part of the article that really made me break down was a quote from Dave Cerami, who graduated from Port Neches in 1984 and is one of the individuals that sued the plants.

Cerami, 43, is in his fourth bout with cancer. This time, it has spread to his brain.

“The last time I was diagnosed, that was a big kick,” he says. “It’s like, how many times can you dance this dance? How many times can you push your luck before your luck runs out?”

Cerami made me think of my Uncle Chris, who has lived in the Pasadena/Deer Park/Jacinto City his whole life. He’s currently working through his second major round of chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer. Uncle Chris is a stubborn old fart. He’s rude, and irritable, and can be a real pain to be around. The first Christmas after my parents got married, my mother (typically a very reasonable woman) nearly attacked him with a frying pan. I don’t mean that figuratively, either. I watched my father wrestle the pan from her grasp.

Unfortunate personality traits aside, I love my Uncle Chris. Despite his gruff exterior, the man has his soft spots. He used to show concern for me in the silliest ways, like when he was worried I wouldn’t be safe staying home alone as a 13-year-old.

I haven’t seen Uncle Chris in some time, but in a recent phone conversation with my grandmother I learned that his cancer is probably terminal. This didn’t really sink in until I read Cerami’s words.

Then I started thinking about the context of the quote. Both men were fighting, and possibly dying, from cancer. Both had grown up in areas with intense industrial pollution. Could Uncle Chris’ cancer be a result of the environment he’s always lived and worked in? He’s also been a trucker for years, which means he’s had a high exposure to diesel exhaust from his rig and the highway. A recent national report found that this means he has a higher risk of lung cancer than other workers.

I’ve been studying the extent and risks of toxic air exposure for some time now without it really sinking in what those things meant. We hear about cancer risks so much these days, it hardly means anything anymore. But when we’re talking about air toxics and industrial pollution, this is what it means: people are unnecessarily getting sick and having their quality of life diminished if not ended as a result of where they live, or go to school, or the industry in which they work. Time and time again, the interests of industry have come before the health and safety of Texas citizens. We have the technology and ability to monitor these chemicals and limit their emissions, but it just isn’t a government priority. The agencies that are supposed to protect us – the EPA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality- aren’t doing their job. It’s time for our bureaucracy to start working for us again.