Air testing equipment installed, sampling to start Thursday

Published 9:35 am Wednesday, July 29, 2009

IRONTON — Nearly a year after a national study suggested Lawrence County school children breathe some of the worst air in the country, monitoring equipment was installed Tuesday to determine the actually toxicity of that air.

Secured near the playground of Whitwell Elementary, the three units of testing apparatus will sample for gases such as benzene and particulates such as hexavalent chromium, both of which are carcinogens that can lead to lung cancer, leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Manganese and manganese compounds will also be sampled. Manganese poisoning has been linked to impaired motor skills and cognitive disorders.

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Initiated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency following a 2008 University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University report on emissions near schools, the project was announced in late March when Whitwell was one of seven schools in the state selected for testing.

The South Fifth Street school is part of a longer list of 62 priority schools in 22 states where the U.S. EPA has identified potential health concerns from toxic air pollutants. Ohio, along with Texas, had the most schools on the list.

Testing was initially scheduled to start in April, but was delayed three months as equipment required for the sampling needed to be ordered and the U.S. EPA wanted to have the same testing schedule with the monitoring being conducted in Kentucky.

Tuesday’s installation was overseen by the Portsmouth Local Air Agency which monitors air quality in Lawrence, Scioto, Brown and Adams counties.

Instrument technician Darrell Pennington said the sampling unit will collect air “like a vacuum cleaner” in gathering the information the U.S. EPA will use in its schoolyard testing.

“This gives us a snapshot of what our air is like,” Pennington said when pointing out the testing aspects of each piece of equipment.

Pennington along with fellow instrument tech Bobby McCann spent the morning placing and securing the testing units in a fenced in pen.

The Portsmouth Local Air Agency will be responsible for monitoring the equipment and collecting the results, while the U.S. EPA will oversee the analyzing of the samples.

Testing is scheduled to start Thursday and will wrap-up on Sept. 22. It will be conducted every six days regardless of weather.

Placed at ground level, the monitors will sample air quality for a 24-hour period on 10 different days during an eight week period. The equipment will be secured in a locked facility.

Once the air toxics data collected are quality-assured, the U.S. EPA will then examine the results to estimate how exposure to the outdoor air around Whitwell might affect student’s health over the long-term. The results from each testing area will be made public when finalized.

The U.S. EPA will cease monitoring at Whitwell if the results show good air quality. But if high levels of contaminants are detected, the agency will take steps to reduce the pollution.

The testing comes during a time when some of the largest culprits for poor air in the Tri-State area are either shut down or on reduced production.

When the 2008 study was released, AK Steel and Kentucky Electric Steel in Ashland, Ky. along with Steel of West Virginia, Inc. and Huntington Alloys in Huntington, W.Va. were named as the largest emitters of unhealthy air in the area.

Three schools in neighboring Ashland, Ky., were also named. Charles Russell Elementary, Crabbe School and Hatcher School along with Cabell County Career Technology Center in Huntington, W.Va. will also have outdoor air sampled.

Testing at Whitwell does not include indoor air quality monitoring, as no system currently exists for measuring indoor air pollutants.

A wide range of factors unique to a specific building affects indoor air quality. Those include types of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems along with building design and structure.