In the second part of the special report Sick Schools: A National Problem, Education World news editor Diane Weaver Dunne examines how poor and minority school populations are exposed to more environmental hazards and therefore suffer a disproportionate amount of adverse health effects. Included: A chronicle of one Texas community organization's efforts to raise health and safety concerns about a newly constructed high school plus statistics from an EPA report about schools located in high-poverty areas.
Note: This article is part of a five-part series originally published in June 2001. Links have been updated for this reposting of the article.
Juan Parras, a community organizer and outreach coordinator for the Environmental Justice Clinic at Texas Southern University, doesn't need to see statistical research or presidential executive orders to realize that children in poor communities are disproportionately exposed to more environmental hazards than are children from more affluent communities.
He and members of several community groups have been raising concerns about a range of health risks posed by the location of a new high school, César Chávez High School in Houston, Texas, from the lack of sidewalks to safely evacuating students from the school in the event one of the four nearby chemical industrial facilities explodes.
"This is a low-income, Hispanic community," Parras tells Education World. "The people here have no political clout. No resources. So [government officials] just shove it down our throats."
As a volunteer for the grassroots organization United Against Environmental Racism (UAER), Parras believes the construction last year of César E. Chávez High School in Houston is an example of environmental injustice. The new school is located less than a quarter of a mile from four chemical industrial facilities -- Texas Petroleum, Denka Chemical, USS Chemical, and Goodyear Chemical.
"Nothing would save you [in the event of an industrial explosion]," Parras emphasizes.
Environment-related health problems are persistent among some groups of children, with race and poverty playing a disproportionate role, especially black children from families living below the poverty line, according to America's Children and the Environment: A First View of Available Measures, the EPA's first report on trends reflecting environmental factors that may affect the health and well-being of children in the United States.
EPA ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE PROGRAM GUIDES GROUPS
Parras and the community groups have been meeting with representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency. The local groups have formed subgroups to investigate five potential health risks: underground pipelines, air quality, emergency response, water discharges, and school access. They will present their findings to the EPA in August.
"Commonsense concerns are on everyone's mind," explains Gerald Carney, an EPA toxicologist, of the EPA Environmental Justice. Carney is one of the EPA officials who have met with members of various community organizations concerned about health risks posed by the location of Chávez High School. Former President Bill Clinton established the EPA Environmental Justice Program because a growing number of minority and low-income populations in the United States populations are exposed to more environmental hazards.
Although the community groups don't agree about the severity of each health risk, they are working together and agree on some basic concerns, Carney tells Education World. They have already made progress, he says, noting that the Texas Department of Health is conducting a health study and that the city of Houston has addressed a concern about sidewalks. The next step is to empower the groups with the development of practical solutions to minimize health risks and safety concerns regarding emergency response, Carney says.
ARE POOR LATINOS EXPENDABLE?
"The stacks burn 24 hours a day," remarks Lois Gibbs about the chemical industrial facilities near the high school. Gibbs is the executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Virginia. "If there is an accident, there is no way to evacuate the children. But the land was cheap, and the population -- poor Latinos -- are expendable in the government's eyes." Gibbs notes that the school was constructed under the watch of Secretary of Education Roderick Paige when he was superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.
Gibbs formed CHEJ 20 years ago after spearheading public awareness about the health risks posed by building schools and residences on top of an industrial hazardous waste site in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York. The federal government eventually evacuated the area and purchased the homes. Her organization has worked with 8,000 community groups -- including UAER-- to help them organize grassroots efforts to guard against unsafe environmental school situations. Currently, 70 groups are actively promoting the center's Poisoned Schools Campaign to childproof community schools. The center recently released an 83-page report, Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visible Actions.
SCHOOL OFFICIALS STATE CHÁVEZ IS SAFE
School district officials are confident that Chávez High School is safe and that there is no risk to student safety in the event a nearby industrial explosion requires an evacuation of the school, says Heather Browne, spokesperson for the Houston Independent School District. "Obviously, the school would not be located there if there was any sort of evacuation risk," Browne explains to Education World. The pipelines also are not a safety risk, she says.
According to Browne, two environmental tests of air and soil -- conducted in 1992 and in 1996 -- confirm that there are no environmental hazards surrounding the schools. No future tests are planned, Browne says, noting that a park, three public swimming pools, the South Houston City Hall, and a golf course are located within 2 miles of Chávez High School. "The school district is always mindful of any concerns," she explains. "It is willing to work with and listen to those with concerns."