Mike Stone / Landov / Reuters

1 in 3 US children attends school in chemical ‘danger zones’

Study finds students are in class near industrial facilities where a chemical leak or explosion could be ‘catastrophic’

One in three children attend schools in areas vulnerable to chemical accidents from nearby facilities, according to a study released by the Center for Effective Government (CEG). 

The "Kids in Danger Zones" report maps the locations of 122,968 public and private schools against areas susceptible to contamination from over 3,400 high-risk chemical facilities in the U.S. A vulnerability zone is the areas around each facility that would be affected if a chemical release or explosion occurred. 

“If an explosion or chemical leak occurred at one of these facilities, the result could be catastrophic,” explains President and CEO Katherine McFate on the CEG website.

More than 19.6 million children in 48 states attend schools within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous chemical facility, according to the report, with California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New York having the largest number of students at risk.

The San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park, Texas, located in vulnerability zones of 41 different chemical facilities, was identified as the "most at-risk school."

Even though industries dealing with chemicals deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency to be hazardous must submit a report to the agency as part of the Risk Management Program (RMP) — detailing the type of chemical used, quantity stored and the radius of area that will be affected in the worst case scenario of an accident — information regarding the vulnerability zone is not available online, said Sean Moulton, director of Open Government Policy, and co-author of the report. 

And only very rarely is vulnerability zone information included in responses to FOIA requests, he said.

“It can only be accessed in EPA reading rooms and only 10 [such reports] a month [can be read],” Moulton told Al Jazeera, adding that it took nearly five years of research to compile the report.

Students in 'danger zones'

Everyone within a vulnerability zone is potentially at risk in case of a chemical release. The extent of damage depends on factors including wind directions and weather conditions. The report identifies Houston, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas as metro areas where students are at the highest risk level because “many schools lie in multiple vulnerability zones.”

But certain chemicals, like ammonium nitrate that caused the destruction of three Texas schools last year, are not  listed under the EPA’s Risk Management Program, intended to prevent accidental release of toxic substances.

“All I can say for sure is it’s a tremendous oversight," said Moulton. "It’s a huge weakness of the program." 

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