Exhausted at School

State Health Officials Critical of Seattle Schools' Air-Pollution Report

A state report is critical of the methods used to evaluate the air quality at John Marshall School in Seattle – a 100-year-old building that was renovated before hundreds of elementary school students moved in last fall.

At issue is whether children could suffer harm from the pollution by generated by cars and trucks traveling on close-by roads and highways. In John Marshall's case, one corner of its lot in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood sits under Interstate 5.

After the school building was featured in several 2013 stories by KING 5 and the environmental journalism watchdog InvestigateWest, Seattle Public Schools paid Veritox $35,000 to study whether traffic pollution could harm students and staff.

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KING 5 Investigators: Preschoolers Face Health Hazards at Day Care

Thursday night's newscast from our partners at KING 5 examined heath risks from traffic pollution that toddlers and preschoolers may face at day care. More than 100 child care facilities located dangerously close to a major road, InvestigateWest reported yesterday.

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Map: Day cares and road pollution in Washington state

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Definitions

In the map above, high-traffic routes carry at least 50,000 vehicles per day, according to WSDOT data.

T-1 truck routes carry more than 10 million tons of annual freightage. T-2 truck routes carry more than 4 million tons of annual freightage.

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More than 100 Washington day cares dangerously close to pollution-clogged roadways

Kids 'N Us day care in south Everett borders on an off-ramp of Interstate 5.
Credit: KING 5

It’s a cruel fact of physiology: kids are the hardest-hit victims of air pollution. Pound for pound, children breathe more than adults, receiving a relatively bigger toxic dose delivered to their developing bodies. And the smaller the child, the bigger the impact. What makes an 8-year-old cough could make an infant stop breathing.

That science takes on particular significance in Washington, where 126 day cares are located beside major roads and where rules about where new facilities can open are not enforced. Researchers say air pollution from vehicle traffic can aggravate asthma, reduce lung function and boost school absenteeism, as well as promote cancer later in life and harm developing immune systems.

An additional 439 day cares sit within 500 feet of the state’s heaviest truck routes, a new analysis by InvestigateWest shows. The diesel fuel that powers these trucks can spew 100 to 200 times more soot than gasoline engines, and the exhaust is so toxic that the World Health Organization classifies it as a carcinogen.

Nationally, more than 11 million children under 5 are enrolled in regular child care.  In Washington, one-fourth of all toddlers and one-third of all preschoolers attend a licensed child care facility, according to a 2008 survey.

Joel Kaufman, director of University of Washington’s Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program, has spent years studying the connection between traffic pollution and cardiovascular disease. He said the Northwest suffers from acutely low awareness of near-road pollution risks.

“We have a perception that air pollution isn’t a problem in this part of the country,” and on a regional scale that is mostly right, he said. “But lots of the places where kids spend their time are in high-pollution areas that aren’t reflected well by monitoring.”

KING 5 Investigators: California law a model for Washington

In our continuing Exhausted at School investigation with KING 5, Chris Ingalls visits Todd Beamer High in Federal Way and talks with one of the scientists who helped push for California's more stringent law restricting new school construction near freeways.

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Officials in Olympia, D.C. ducked opportunities to protect students from traffic pollution

Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way, Wash.
Credit: KING 5

In spite of the substantial evidence of air-pollution risks to children who attend schools near large roadways — including lung problems, asthma attacks and heightened absenteeism — policymakers at both the state and federal levels ducked the issue in recent years, records and interviews show.

The risks were squarely presented. At about the same time in 2008 and 2009, independent groups of officials meeting in Olympia and Washington, D.C., considered and then rejected the notion of banning or severely restricting construction of schools inside the pollution plume emanating up to 500 feet from major roadways.

That lack of action means schools in Washington and across the country continue to be built near the nation’s biggest and busiest roads, despite compelling evidence that roadway pollution can set kids’ health back for life.

“It’s common sense, you’d think that common sense would prevail,” said Steve Fischbach, a Rhode Island lawyer who advised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the federal process. “But the number of bad examples shows us that poor siting decisions still go on.”

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Document: Department of Health Preliminary Cost-Benefit Analysis Summary

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Document: Washington Board of Health Briefing Paper on Site Assessment

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