Toxic chemical found in air

Published 10:13 am Friday, October 2, 2009

IRONTON — Air samples taken at Whitwell Elementary School and analyzed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show elevated levels of acrolein — a toxin that was used as a chemical weapon during World War I.

The findings, based on five air quality samples taken in August and September by the Portsmouth Local Air Agency, show higher than normal levels of the toxic chemical present in the air at the Whitwell testing location during every sample the U.S. EPA received.

Ironically, revelation comes less than a month after the U.S EPA announced early samples collected from the Whitwell site showed levels “well below levels of short term concern.”

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On Thursday, the environmental agency changed course saying in a release that they are expecting concentrations of acrolein to “be elevated at most schools” including Whitwell and the three schools being tested in Ashland, Ky.

According to the EPA, five air samples taken for acrolein during August and September showed results of 3.395, 3.303, 3.968, 1.757 and 2.707 micrograms per cubic meter.

The agency had established a sample screening level of 7 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.

However, 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.

Acrolein — in a more potent form — was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. Not currently outlawed under the Chemicals Weapons Convention; the chemical is now used in the preparation of polyester resins and polyurethanes.

It is also a byproduct of burning wood, gasoline and cigarettes. It is a common irritant found in smog.

Because of its common use, the toxin is a widespread pollutant that can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. High traces can also exacerbate asthma.

Elevated levels of acrolein are not limited to schools as similar amounts of acrolein have been monitored in other areas of the country.

The U.S. EPA has been regulating the emissions of acrolein from industrial facilities and vehicles since 1990.

The agency already has seen reductions in acrolein emissions and expects to see more reductions in the future, as rules such as the mobile source air toxics and heavy duty highway vehicle rules are fully phased in.

The agency said Thursday it had not determined the specific sources of the toxin found at Whitwell.

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.

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

Results from the first five air samples show both carcinogens to be well below their sample screening level.

The Whitwell study, which kicked off July 30, sampled the air at ground level around Whitwell School every six days for 24-hours.

Testing was expected to conclude on Sept. 22 after 10 samples have been collected but was pushed back after samples collected in schools in Kentucky were deemed invalid.

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.

No students currently attend the schools as it was vacated by Ironton City Schools in May to make way for the opening of their new Elementary and Middle School on the north side of the city.

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 $2.25 million 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 as 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.

The Cabell County Career Technology Center was not one of the 15 schools named Thursday by the U.S. EPA as having elevated levels of acrolein in the air.

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.