Harms and Fouls: How polluted air near schools affects kids

February 10, 2014
Robet McClure and Amy Solomon

This post was co-authored by Robert McClure, Executive Director of InvestigateWest, and Amy Solomon, Program Officer at the Bullitt Foundation.

When parents choose a day care center or a school for their children, how many consider the proximity of the building to heavily traveled roads? Research shows that kids who spend time in schools, daycare centers, homes, community centers, and similar facilities alongside major roads are prone to lifelong respiratory problems and childhood asthma. Rates of absenteeism are notably higher at those places.

Air pollution researchers recognize the threat posed by invisible plumes of soot and toxic gasses produced by heavy traffic, yet parents are largely unaware of this research. With funding from the Bullitt Foundation and the Google Ideas Data Journalism Fund, Seattle-based nonprofit InvestigateWest set out to change that. The Bullitt Foundation has supported InvestigateWest as a way to help fill the gaps created by the virtual collapse of traditional local news coverage when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer suspended publication of all but a modest on-line version of its former self.

 “Exhausted At School,” a three-part series of text and broadcast stories and interactive online graphics, pinpointed dozens of schools and hundreds of day cares located close to the busiest roads in Washington state.

The series started after InvestigateWest journalists researching the cleanup of the Superfund site along the Duwamish River in Seattle stumbled onto an interesting 2006 study from the University of Washington that looked at housing prices near large roads in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. The study observed disproportionate numbers of low-income and minority families’ homes and the schools that serve them near major roads. The university researchers noted that California, where a lot of air-pollution research has taken place, had passed a law forbidding construction of schools within 500 feet of major roads. California’s move, which has been followed in five other states, was motivated by a body of research dating at least to 1993 showing harm to kids from traffic pollution.

Intrigued by this research, InvestigateWest reporters filed public-records requests with three Washington state agencies to obtain datasets outlining the locations of major roads, schools and day care centers.  (InvestigateWest’s research was apparently the first study to look at the proximity of roads and day care centers.) In addition to roads carrying more than 50,000 vehicles per day, InvestigateWest added state-designated truck routes where diesel pollution is believed to be intense. The journalists consulted with the University of Washington researchers to ensure their methodology was solid. 

Painstaking work with the data revealed that 28 Washington schools are located inside the 500-foot zone where researchers say kids are at risk, with 10 built in the last decade – after the science made it abundantly clear that this was a bad idea. At least 166 more were found near major truck routes.

That first story sharing this data was followed by a second piece that dissected how groups of officials in Washington, D.C., and Olympia, capital of Washington state, had independently considered but rejected standards that would have prevented construction of schools close to major roads. The third story found 126 day care centers close to major roads and an additional 439 next to the state’s busiest truck routes.

 Schools officials, day care operators, parents – all were clueless about the danger. With one exception: InvestigateWest found one family that actually moved to a more-expensive neighborhood so their child would not attend a school by a major road. The father is an air-pollution researcher at the University of Washington who suffered from asthma as a child.

InvestigateWest took its findings to KING 5, a major Seattle television station (founded by Dorothy Bullitt, matriarch of the family that endowed the Bullitt Foundation), that produced its own stories, even sending a news crew to California to show how the school-location law works there. InvestigateWest is sharing its research and analytic methodology with other nonprofit journalism centers around the country. The story has been replicated by other news organizations in southern California and Ohio.

Washington State parents can go to the InvestigateWest website to see if their child’s school or day care is dangerously close to a major road. Readers also can explore documents behind the reporting. 

(Maps from InvestigateWest help identify schools and day care centers closest to high-traffic roadways whose air pollution puts kids at risk of health impacts. Image source: InvestigateWest)

The Seattle School District officials took the findings seriously. They ordered cost estimates for a heavy-duty air filter for a school located right next to Interstate 5. They adopted a new policy to advise principals of bad-air days so that kids at schools next to big roads could be kept in from recess. Part of the long-term solution would be a law like California’s – even though that law has its own loopholes — not to mention cleaning up cars and trucks and fuels to reduce pollution, particularly from toxic diesel fumes.

The Bullitt Foundation’s support for InvestigateWest was not for a specific series or project.   The Foundation, rather, has provided support to media-focused grantees that helps them develop and use language and craft compelling stories to grab the attention of parents, elected officials, voters and concerned citizens. Some are better and more sophisticated at this than others. All are wrestling to tame the “beast” that is social media, while still working traditional channels to bring attention to their priority issues and campaigns.

From the Bullitt Foundation’s perspective, enabling groups like Investigate West to produce stories that can help  move policy, practice or public opinion can be a good investment.  This work spotlighting preventable threats to children’s health is such an example, and one that could be replicated in other places.

Robert McClure, executive director of InvestigateWest.InvestigateWest, co-founded the Investigative News Network, a membership organization set up to aid the growing movement to produce in-depth news at nonprofit newsrooms that are springing up in response to newspapers’ decline.

Amy Solomon is a program officer at the Bullitt Foundation and a HEFN member.The Foundation has provided financial support to InvestigateWest since the organization’s founding in 2009.

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