Is Your Child One of Millions at Risk of Toxic Chemical Exposure?

BY ON September 11, 2014

Little boy standing at fence

What if you knew that your child was at risk of being exposed to a catastrophic chemical disaster just by going to school?

As the mom of three school-age kids, I think a lot about my kids’ school. Not just the academic school, but the bricks-and-mortar physical school, and how it affects their growth and development.

But it wasn’t until recently that I learned that one in ten schoolchildren in the US live within one mile of a dangerous chemical facility.

There are more than 12,000 facilities in the US that store large enough quantities of hazardous chemicals that they are required to file an emergency plan with the EPA. These facilities are places like oil refineries, water treatment plants, bleach manufacturers, wastewater plants, chemical manufacturing facilities, pulp and paper mills, and any other site where large quantities of dangerous chemicals are stored.

The fertilizer plant in West, Texas, which exploded in 2013, killing 15 people, injuring hundreds, and destroying three schools, is one example of such a facility.

Such sites may be storing highly flammable chemicals, as in West. Or they may be storing highly toxic chemicals, such as chlorine gas, which is used as a disinfectant at some water treatment plants. In case of a leak due to an accident, an equipment failure, extreme weather, or terrorism, some of these plants could harm hundreds of thousands of people over many square miles.

An interactive map from the Center for Effective Government shows the location of public schools across the country together with the location of these dangerous chemical facilities. You can zoom in to your state, or even search by school name, to see whether your kids study and play in the shadow of a potential chemical disaster. Zoom out on the map and you can see that nearly 10,000 schools are sited within one mile of a hazardous chemicals facility. These schools are in all 50 states and impact 4.6 million children.

Of course these dangers are not relevant only to schools. The communities where we live are also at risk, and the risk burden falls disproportionately on communities of color and poor communities, according to a 2014 report from the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform. More than 134 million Americans live in the danger zones near 3,400 of the facilities in EPA’s program. (Information about the danger zones of chemical facilities has been limited since September 11, and is therefore available for only a portion of the more than 12,000 total sites registered with EPA.) Residents in these chemical vulnerability zones are disproportionately African American or Latino, have higher rates of poverty compared to the US as a whole, and have lower housing values, incomes, and education levels. The disproportionate danger is sharply magnified in the “fenceline” areas nearest the facilities.

Many safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals exist; but because facilities aren’t required to use safer chemicals or technologies when available, they continue to do what they’re doing. Which involves placing millions of children at risk where they learn and play.

It’s time EPA requires hazardous chemical facilities to use safer chemicals and technologies. Because all kids deserve a healthy, safe school for learning, playing, and growing.

Photo: Elizabeth Crowe



TOPICS: Schools, Social Justice, Toxics