UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute Launches New Tool to Track Air Pollution at Every U.S. School

Interactive web-based tool tracks industrial toxic air pollution at each K-12 and higher-education institution in the United States
smoke stacks

AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) today unveiled a new interactive, web-based tool for tracking industrial toxic air pollution at every school in the United States. The tool, Air Toxics at School, reports toxicity-weighted concentrations of pollutants to show individual chronic human health risk from industrial toxic air pollutants at the schools’ locations.

A product of PERI’s Corporate Toxics Information Project (CTIP), which creates the annual Toxic 100 lists of America’s top corporate air and water polluters and top greenhouse gas emitters, Air Toxics at School shows the comparative individual chronic health risk from industrial toxic air pollution at each K-12 and higher-education institution identified in databases maintained by the U.S. Department of Education. Each school was matched to 2018 U.S. EPA pollution data to show toxic air pollution at the school site. The air pollution analyzed comes from large fixed sources, such as factories, refineries, petroleum depots, metal mining and toxic storage and disposal facilities.

Users can look up any school in the country and receive a report on the industrial facilities and the toxic chemicals that generate health risks at the school location. The report on each school lists pollution sources affecting the school and puts the impact in comparative context relative to all schools in the state and in the country.

Users can also receive a report on all of the schools in a state. For example, the average air pollution at schools in Ohio is 2.5 times the national average with manganese, chromium and nickel among the leading pollutants. The five schools in Ohio with the highest air pollution – located in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dundee and Elyria – have air pollution ranging from 140 times to 2,100 times the national average.

The researchers say that the goal of the tool is to facilitate public access to public information and to engender discussion among parents and students, staff and teachers, school administration, regulators, companies and the broader public.

“This tool builds on the achievements of the right-to-know movement,” notes Michael Ash, professor of economics and public policy at UMass Amherst and CTIP co-director.“Our goal is to engender public participation in environmental decision-making, and to help residents translate the right to know into an equitable right to clean air, clean water, and a livable planet. We hope that the public uses this tool to inform and empower itself.”

The U.S. EPA Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) reports annual releases of approximately 600 toxic chemicals by some 20,000 major industrial facilities in the U.S., however it does not include pollution from mobile sources, agriculture, fracking or other sources that are also major contributors to health risk from air pollution. The EPA uses geographic, facility and chemical data to estimate the concentrations of pollutants in every 810m x 810m square within 50 km around every facility, and models toxicity to capture chemical danger on a per-pound basis. These estimates are the basis of the Air Toxics at School reporting.

The interactive tool allows users to search schools by name or location and to explore results in more detail. Facility names are linked to EPA’s Envirofacts Toxic Release Inventory display for that facility. Parent company names are linked to PERI’s 2018 Toxic 100 Air application, which shows a detailed display of all the TRI-reporting facilities owned by the company, all TRI chemicals released and environmental justice indicators for toxic air pollution from the company’s facilities. Chemical names are linked to New Jersey Right-To-Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheets on chemical health effects, and city names are linked to a MapQuest street map centered on the school’s latitude and longitude.

The PERI researchers have modeled Air Toxics at School after the web-based tool provided by the award-winning 2008 USA Today project, “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools.”