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Schools + Landfills
Might Add Up
to Health Problems

In the third part of the special report Sick Schools: A National Problem, Education World news editor Diane Weaver Dunne examines health concerns raised by residents in Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island about schools located on or near hazardous waste sites or landfills. Included: Both sides get their say!

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.

Districts once considered schools constructed on former waste sites a great bargain. Some industrial companies would sell entire tracts of land to school districts for only a $1. Although students continue to attend schools located on former landfills and hazardous waste sites, some residents say, the health risks posed by the toxic elements buried under those schools are not worth the cost savings.

Kim Tolnar is one of 12 former students of River Valley High School in Marion, Ohio, who have been diagnosed with leukemia. She and the other former students were diagnosed about six to ten years following their attendance at the school. Tolnar, a 1983 graduate, was diagnosed when she was 28 years old.

Half the River Valley High School site is contaminated with hazardous chemicals. The site was formerly used by the U.S. Army, which disposed of various chemicals there, including known and suspected carcinogens, said Jay Carey, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Health. Approximately 15 acres of the school's property was fenced off in the spring of 1999, so the current student population -- about 800 students -- do not have access to that particular area, Carey says.


Sick Schools: A National Problem

Be sure to read all five parts of Education World's special report on the environmental conditions of our nation's school buildings, the health consequences for students and staff, and what school officials can do.
* Environmental Problems Blamed for Making Kids Sick
* Environmental Injustice: Poor and Minorities Suffer Most from Sick Schools
* Schools + Landfills Might Add Up to Health Problems
* Causes and Effects of Sick Schools Vary
* Sick Schools Create Dilemma for School Districts

The Ohio Department of Health surveyed 5,300 students who attended the high school from 1963 to 1999. About one-third of the students responded to the survey. The rate of leukemia of former River Valley High School students was four times greater than what would be expected from that particular group of students, Carey explains. The survey also found high incidences of esophageal (throat) cancer as well. The department is currently studying all reported cases of cancer.

Despite those statistically high rates of cancer, officials are unable to directly link the illnesses to the school property. "We have conducted hundreds of assessments, and they show that this site is safe for students," Carey says. "There really is no human pathway ... we tested the air, water, and soil. To this day, we have not found a pathway for human exposure. If we did, we would have found it best to close the school."

Tolnar disagrees. "There is no question in my mind that there is a link between the leukemia and the school. It's common sense. You don't have to confirm the pathway. The only connection all 12 of us have in common is with the school," Tolnar tells Education World.


Tolnar is concerned for those students who continue to attend the school. "You want to believe that people in a position of power will do the right thing, but when it comes down to money and liability, the outcome has been disappointing," Tolnar said.

She and her parents don't want others to endure what she has experienced. Tolnar underwent a successful bone marrow transplant to treat her leukemia. However, complications from the disease and treatment have left her infertile, deaf in one ear, and with damaged knees and ankles. Regardless, she is grateful and surprised to be alive. "I am a miracle," she said. "There is no question I was expected to die due to having too many complications."

The battle to close down the high school has been a topic on Court TV and ABC's Good Morning America. However, Tolnar and her mother say, the community has spurned their concerns.

Tolnar's mother, Roxanne Krumanaker, along with another mother of a student diagnosed with leukemia, formed a citizen's group, Concerned River Valley Families, four years ago. Krumanaker explains that the community pegs them as alarmists and radicals. "We have a community in denial. It's all very surprising. The kids should be relocated. It's just a no-brainer."


Federal and state funds, along with the taxpayers of Marion, are contributing to an estimated $24 million needed to construct a new middle school-high school complex. Part of the funding comes from the state's Extreme Environmental Contamination Program. To be eligible for this program, the Marion School District had to establish that students would be exposed to contaminants at levels that violate state and federal standards and that the district has an exceptional need for new facilities to protect the health and safety of a portion of or all its students.

The town's eligibility for the program centers on the increased health risks posed by the actual cleanup of the site, which would increase exposure to the chemicals on the site, explains Carol Hester, spokesperson for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.


Some school districts consider former dumps good places to build a school. In Providence, Rhode Island, an elementary-middle school complex was constructed on top of one of the city's former dumps in 1999.

Lois Gibbs of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice is astounded that new schools still are being constructed on former industrial sites. "Back in the 1950s, officials would say, 'We really didn't know,'" says Gibbs. "Today, that excuse doesn't work." In addition to the Providence schools, she points to other new schools constructed on or near toxic sites in cities such as Houston and New Orleans.

Some residents in Providence have done more than express their concerns to city officials; they have filed a civil law suit against the city. At issue is environmental safety and what residents characterize as the hasty government approval process and construction of a school complex on a former dump site. The site had a history of illegal dumping and contained auto remnants, lead, and volatile organic compounds such as petroleum products and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are believed to be carcinogens.


Rhode Island officials acknowledge the residents' concerns but say measures the city took mitigate potential health risks from the site's former land use.

"There is no pristine land here," says Robert Vanderslice, chief of the Rhode Island Office of Environmental Health Risk Assessment, whose office had no role in determining the Providence school site. "The city did not excavate all the garbage, but it removed a fair amount," Vanderslice says. Following some garbage removal, the site was graded with 2 feet of clean fill. As a precaution, because methane -- which can become explosive -- might develop from the decay of the garbage and come up through the soil, a gas collection system was installed when the school buildings were constructed.

In addition to those measures, the school complex undergoes routine testing for volatile organic compounds and is routinely monitored for methane. "I think the school is in a good situation," Vanderslice tells Education World. "But that's not enough for a community that has been alienated. I think this [case] is a perfect example of when communication goes wrong. The parents found out at the last minute. It's not how the school was sited, the problem was in the process. What do you do when you've alienated a community?"

Trust is an issue with those who are suing the state. "We have an incredibly corrupt government in Rhode Island," says Steven Fischbach, an attorney with Rhode Island Legal Services who is representing the plaintiffs in the civil suit. "It's as rotten as the trash is in the dump." But Fischbach's primary issue with the state relates to the potential health risks posed by the hazardous elements found in the soil.

"They are putting children in harm's way," Fischbach tells Education World. "The body count doesn't accumulate until 15 to 20 years later." The civil suit is not seeking a monetary settlement but is asking for the new school complex to be closed.