Kennett school leaders ask for more air testing after USA Today report

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

KENNETT, Mo. -- Following a recent article in USA Today that listed H. Byron Masterson Elementary School on the North Bypass in Kennett as one of seven schools with the worst air quality in the nation, Kennett superintendent Jerry Noble contacted the Environmental Protection Agency to see if students were in danger.

"The EPA referred me to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for monitoring air quality in the state," Noble said. "I was assured by a chemist at the [DNR]that the air quality in Kennett was as good as any area in Missouri. They have monitoring stations set up around the state and they do not believe there is any problem with the air quality in Kennett. However, due to the concerns caused by the recent article, I have requested that we have the air quality checked around all of our schools."

The USA Today article led to concerns for many area parents who were worried about their children, as well as the DNR, which was unsure of the validity of the article.

"The person I spoke to at the [DNR] told me that they had also read the article and were very puzzled by it. Therefore, they have agreed to do some extensive testing of the air quality around our schools for the next several months," Noble said.

"The explanation may be that the testing was done in August and we all know that August is the month we begin to defoliate cotton in this area. However, Holcomb fared much better than Kennett, so I still am curious to get the results from the [DNR]. If they also find that we have a problem, and it can be corrected, I assure you that steps will be taken to do so."

At the recent Kennett Board of Education meeting Dec. 22, Noble said DNR would start a review of the air quality around Kennett schools Dec. 23.

"They're going to do one 24-hour [test] tomorrow to see if we have a problem," Noble said Monday. "The reason USA Today received a bad reading could have been, if it was done in the fall, because of all the defoliant. It also could have been next to the street, close to the asphalt, which has a lot of benzene in it."

On Friday, Noble said because of the recent inclement weather he was unsure if the review had been done yet. Noble also said he had not received any calls or information from DNR, but would contact them to see if they were able to make the trip.

Although H. Byron Masterson Elementary was listed in the top seven for worst air quality, all of the schools in the Kennett District No. 39 were also listed as having bad air quality.

Kennett High School and the Kennett Career and Technology Center, both at 1400 West Washington Street, were listed in the first percentile of poor air quality schools, with only 575 schools across the nation having worse air quality, according to USA Today.

Kennett Middle School, 510 College Ave., was listed in the second percentile with 757 schools having worse air quality.

South Elementary School, 920 South Kennett Street, was also listed in the second percentile with 1,760 schools having worse air quality. In their methodology, USA Today said that they worked with researchers and scientists at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the University of Maryland in College Park to analyze exposure to industrial pollution at schools across the nation, with a goal of determining what sort of toxic chemicals children breathe when they go to school.

USA Today gathered information on about 127,800 public and private schools from the National Center for Education Statistics and more than two dozen state education agencies.

Toxicity assessments for each school were based on emissions data collected by the EPA as part of its Toxics Release Inventory program.

The researchers obtained data from an EPA model known as the Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators, which scores chemicals based on their potential danger. The model uses information from industrial facilities to estimate where concentrations of released chemicals will be the highest.

The University of Massachusetts researchers used those findings to produce lists of chemicals that contributed to the air toxicity at each of the 127,800 schools in 2005, the most recent year for which the EPA has completed its model.

Because the measures are based on a model and estimates of emissions, they are subject to some limitations, said USA Today. For example, the model makes certain assumptions about topography, the height of smokestacks and the toxicity of certain chemicals, any of which could influence the assessment of toxicity in a particular location. In some cases, the EPA model appeared to underestimate exposure to toxic chemicals, while in others, it appeared to overstate it.

USA Today also said that because it is based on reports from 2008, the model may not fully reflect the current situation at each school. For example, some facilities have closed since 2005, and others have opened.

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