Air samples taken near Whitwell School better than expected

Published 10:01 am Thursday, September 10, 2009

IRONTON — Early results show that air samples collected from Whitwell Elementary in April had a lower-than-expected concentration of toxic chemicals in it compared to sample levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had established for the property.

The preliminary figures, released Wednesday by the EPA, show the level of key hazardous pollutants in the air around Whitwell Elementary “well-below levels of short-term concern,” the government agency said.

The preliminary sample testing at Whitwell had focused on a pair of harmful airborne chemicals: benzene, a chemical emitted by mobile sources and industry and benzo(a)pyrene, a chemical formed during the incomplete combustion of coal.

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Both are carcinogens that can lead to lung cancer, leukemia, impaired motor skills, cognitive disorders and Hodgkin’s lymphoma in children.

According to the EPA, a pair of air samples taken for benzene at two different times in April showed results of .68405 and .80552 micrograms per cubic meter.

The agency had established a sample screening level of 30 micrograms per cubic meter for the site meaning that sample results at or below the sample screening level should not be a concern for risk of short-term health problems.

Sample screening levels represent exposure estimates that are unlikely to lead to a risk of adverse health effects on both children and adults exposed all day, every day, for periods of a couple of weeks up to a year.

Likewise, two different sample results for benzo(a)pyrene show .0001 and .00038 micrograms per cubic meter, under the 6.4 sample screening the EPA had established.

All other monitored toxic air pollutants came in under their established sample screening levels.

The EPA warned against drawing conclusions based on the sample results as their current study is designed to determine whether long-term, not short-term, exposure poses health risks to students and faculty members.

That study, which kicked off July 30, is currently sampling the air at ground level around Whitwell School every six days for 24-hours. Testing is expected to conclude on Sept. 22 after 10 samples have been collected.

The installation of the monitoring equipment was overseen by the Portsmouth Local Air Agency which monitors air quality in Lawrence, Scioto, Brown and Adams counties. The Portsmouth Local Air Agency is be responsible for monitoring the equipment and collecting the results, while the EPA will oversee the analyzing of the samples.

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

The April testing came 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.

Initiated 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.

Now slated for demolition, the former South Fifth Street school is part of a longer list of 62 priority schools in 22 states where the 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 EPA wanted to have the same testing schedule with the monitoring being conducted in Kentucky.

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.