Should Michigan do more to protect students from p...

Should Michigan do more to protect students from pollution near schools?

The state doesn't require districts to take environmental hazards into account when deciding where to put schools.

Between 2017 and 2020, Detroit’s Marathon Petroleum Company refinery repeatedly exceeded state and federal air quality rules and regulations. In early February, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) Air Quality Division announced it had finalized a consent order with Marathon. It calls for the company to upgrade the air handling and filtration system at the nearby Mark Twain School for Scholars.

The school, serving grades pre-K through eighth, and the Marathon refinery are situated in the 48217 zip code, often called Detroit’s most polluted zip code. Over the years, community members have raised concerns about how pollution is affecting students at the school.

As part of the consent order, Marathon is required to create a public website that will share real-time air quality information. The company will pay a settlement of more than $81,000, and the school and public website projects are anticipated to cost about $540,000.

Playground at Salina Elementary in Dearborn, located adjacent to AK Steel.. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Pollution and other environmental hazards in and around schools can cause health problems for students and staff, as well as developmental problems that can hamper students’ learning. But at many schools, no one is measuring air pollution, even in areas known to be heavily polluted. 

A University of Michigan report on school siting guidelines aims to avoid putting schools in these areas in the future. Last July, University of Michigan Professor Paul Mohai and University of Maryland Associate Professor Byoung-Suk Kweon released a report, Michigan School Siting Guidelines: Taking the Environment Into Account, recommending a school siting policy in Michigan.

In about half of states in the U.S., when a school district decides to build a new school, it’s required to conduct an environmental assessment and take into account pollutants and other potential hazards on and near the site. This way, the school district or other decision-maker—sometimes a school board or superintendent—can avoid putting schools where pollution and other hazards could harm kids and staff. 

But Michigan doesn’t have these requirements. 

Mohai and Kweon researched the environmental quality around schools, looking at 3,600 schools across the state, and found that 64% are located in the more polluted areas within their school districts. They also found that students at schools located closer to industrial facilities and major highways had higher risks of respiratory and neurological diseases, as well as a higher percentage of students failing to meet the state standards for English and math than students at schools located farther away from such facilities. 

The findings align with other studies showing that proximity to busy roadways can stunt children’s lung growth and increase their risk of developing lung cancer and having developmental delays.

Mohai and Kweon have been studying the disproportionate environmental health burdens on people of color and poor communities in Detroit schools and their environments for many years. 

“It always seemed to me that this was an important environmental justice issue in its own right because children don’t have any say as to where they live or where they go to school. And it’s up to us as adults to make those decisions for them,” Mohai said, adding that children are particularly vulnerable because they take in more air in proportion to their body weight, and their bodies are still growing and developing. 

Mohai’s report cites a separate survey of Michigan school superintendents that found economic factors were the most important criteria in determining the site of a new school. Environmental quality did not factor into these decisions.

“Momentum for developing school siting policies that take into account environmental quality considerations grew out of a concern for Michigan schoolchildren’s health and ability to learn,” the report says. 

The push to take environmental hazards into account for school siting

Last September, state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and five other senators introduced Senate Bill 1088 to require environmental assessments in school siting decisions. It would also spur development of statewide guidance to help districts assess potential hazards, including air pollution, soil and groundwater contamination, safety hazards, noise and odors. The bill remains in committee.

“We really think it’s common sense to protect students,” Chang said. “We want to make sure that schools are placed in locations that aren’t going to be harmful to their health. And I think it’s also really important that we are thinking about the impact of environmental justice and indoor air quality and all of these things on students’ ability to focus and do well academically.”

Lakia Wilson-Lumpkins, executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said that pollution in schools is also a huge concern for teachers. 

“The children are affected by whatever the pollutants are,” she said, adding that school siting guidelines “would safeguard the health and the safety of our students and our staff members.”

The report describes how state and local agencies, advocacy groups and the public should be more involved in the school siting process. Its recommendations are based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency School Siting Guidelines and the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee’s recommendations. 

The EPA guidelines, issued in 2011, call on states to develop their own voluntary standards. The guidelines advise potential school sites should be screened for hazards, including air pollution, pesticides, groundwater contamination, surface water pollution, high-traffic roads, industry sites and landfills. They also recommend schools be located specific distances away from facilities such as dry cleaners, gas stations, and agricultural operations that use aerial pesticide spraying. 

Of the states that do have their own guidelines, Mohai and Kweon reviewed seven and included their detailed requirements in the report. Along with these states’ examples, Kweon points out that Michigan’s guidelines on other types of buildings could serve as examples, such as the Michigan State Housing Development Authority required environmental assessments for housing developments.

What about existing schools?

Pollution in the learning environment is a problem. But at some schools, no one is measuring pollution, so there’s no direct evidence to link students’ exposure to harmful substances and their problems with health, development, and school performance.

Environmental quality should be monitored for both new and existing schools, Mohai said. “We think this is an enormously important issue, to make certain that a particularly vulnerable population is not put in harm’s way.”

The Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) does not measure air pollution at schools, other than monitoring for asbestos in certain buildings. The district does test water quality, and installed hydration stations in all schools in 2019 after excess lead levels were found in the water, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Machion Jackson said.

Salina Elementary in Dearborn located adjacent to AK Steel.

“We implemented a very quick campaign, and through the generosity of the philanthropic community, we were able to place water hydration stations, with filters, in all of our schools,” she said. “The district is committed to anything that seeks to improve the quality of health and wellness in our students, whether that be air quality or water quality.” 

She noted that DPSCD has not built a new school in several years, adding that regulatory guidance or zoning requirements from the city, county, or state do not include air quality considerations. 

In 48217, when Boynton Elementary-Middle School was closed and Mark Twain transferred to that site, “the Mark Twain parents refused to send their children because of their concerns about pollution,” said Dolores Leonard, an educator and community leader who served on the Michigan School Siting Guidelines report’s steering committee.

Detroit schools collect information on individual students’ health, including asthma, she said, but the district does not track it. 

“I do know…  that high levels of pollutants can trigger asthma attacks in students as well as adults,” Jackson said. “When Marathon approached the district and asked that we consider a partnership which would allow them to place individual air purifiers in classrooms, we did not agree with that as a solution.” 

Updating the air handling system so that the whole school would be air-conditioned, and adding an air purifier to the system, is a better solution, she said.  

A legacy of exposure

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Leonard worked as a secretary at the former Jeffries Elementary School, also in 48217, and her work included typing the requests for psychological exams. She was concerned that children were being diagnosed with psychological problems and placed in special education, which she suspected could be linked to pollution exposure. 

She recalled that soil testing found arsenic, benzene and lead, and that four teachers died from cancer in a short period of time. Years later, through environmental work, she said she recognized “the negative impact of pollution upon children’s physical, mental, and psychological well-being.” 

In that neighborhood over the years, Leonard said, “Many people have died and continue dying from cancer, people have high asthma, blood pressure, a lot of health disparities.” So the children need to be protected, she said. “The future of this community, 48217 zip code, is our children. Our children are precious.” 

As part of their research for the report, Mohai and Kweon toured some schools where pollution has raised concerns. Kweon said the poor air quality at some of them was palpable. 

“You cannot ignore those things. As an individual, you can smell it, your eyes are burning,” and you can feel it in your throat, she said. 

According to data on asthma from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, two zip codes had the highest rates of persistent asthma among children: 48201 and 48208. The former houses Spain-Elementary Middle School, where Kendra Barclay teaches first grade. She has taught for DPSCD for 22 years. 

Barclay said she has had more students with asthma in recent years than she used to. Last year, four or five students in her class had asthma. “I had one parent each from the last two classes to say the asthma was bad enough for the child to miss school during the winter,” she said. A couple of years ago, one student’s asthma required him to have a few breathing treatments at school during the day. 

Barclay said she’s had “a little bit of frustration with conditions that none of us have any control over that may trigger an asthma attack.” The wing of the school where she teaches is not air-conditioned, so in hot weather, she keeps an eye on the students with asthma.

When Barclay taught at another Detroit school nearby, “sometimes the air would be so putrid it would physically make me ill to breathe,” she remembered. And she wondered what was in it. “Whatever it is, we were inhaling it.”

For schools in polluted areas, air filtration systems can help, Chang said. “We do have a lot of schools that are in locations where there is a lot of air pollution, and getting those school air filtration systems is really important,” she said. Chang was able to secure $250,000 for school air filtration systems for schools in DPSCD in the fiscal year 2021 budget. But there’s much more that we need to try to get there.”

Marathon will pay for both air conditioning and air filtration at Mark Twain, following community input on the previously proposed consent order.

Challenges in Dearborn

Dearborn has also been dealing with pollution-related problems. Community members have raised concerns about two schools, Salina Elementary and Salina Intermediate, because of their proximity to several industrial sites. EGLE operates an air quality monitoring station in Salina Elementary’s parking lot. A citizens’ group recently issued intent to sue nearby AK Steel for repeated violation of the Clean Air Act.

”Both of the schools are equipped with air conditioning to help control the air quality and environment in the school,” said David Mustonen, director of communications and marketing at Dearborn Public Schools. “In addition, a more robust air filtration system has been added to the older Salina and was part of the original design of the new school.” 

The district tests air quality in its schools periodically for carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and fungal screenings, Mustonen said. He noted that the City of Dearborn recently passed an ordinance to mitigate air pollution caused by “fugitive dust,” or visible particulate emissions, which can cause airway irritation and difficulty breathing and can aggravate asthma. Dearborn Public Schools does not track asthma rates.

A school’s precise location can make a difference. A 2019 study found that students who moved to a school downwind of a major highway (from a school that was not downwind) had lower test scores and a higher likelihood of behavioral incidents and missing school. 

“When environmental hazards are identified in or near existing schools—such as the high levels of sulfur dioxide emissions found in parts of Wayne County that designate the area as being in ‘non-attainment’ of national standards for sulfur dioxide,” residents should be informed immediately about the potential hazard, symptoms and treatment, Mohai’s report says. “The public should also have a voice in decisions on how to deal with the hazard, whether through remediation, school closure or other measures.” 

Kweon said that when districts decide which schools to close or merge, they should consider environmental factors. 

It’s important to monitor pollution in schools “because it affects the way our children learn, if they can learn at all in those conditions,” Wilson-Lumpkins said. 

Chang said that “having read some of the research around the impact of air quality on students’ school attendance and academic performance, that’s what we try to point to” in talking about these issues. “In Michigan, we have a long way to go in terms of improving our academic outcomes, and so I think that this conversation needs to be a part of that larger conversation.”

As an adult, if there’s an odor in the air, sometimes it can give you a headache, Wilson-Lumpkins said. “You don’t want to work. You have to put your head down, or you have to take some medicine,” she said. “Kids… are expected to just power through. They can’t. They’re children. And so we have to be concerned about their health.”