Kids who attend schools located next to freeways and busy truck routes face harmful health effects from the pollutants, according to an increasing number of medical and scientific studies.
Some states have taken action to protect children from the harms of roadway pollution. Washington state is not one of them.
“Kids with higher traffic exposure have more respiratory infections, they have worse respiratory infections. They miss school. Their parents have to miss work. There’s lots of impacts on the community,” said Dr. Catherine Karr, head of the Northwest Pediatric Environmental Specialty Unit at the University of Washington.
[Related story from InvestigateWest: Officials in Olympia, D.C. ducked opportunities to protect students from traffic pollution]
Yet Washington school districts continue to construct new school buildings within 500 feet of freeways, the area where experts say risks of exposure are greatest.
An investigation by KING 5 and InvestigateWest found eight new school buildings constructed along I-5 in the past decade.
In California -- a much larger state with many more miles of freeway -- construction of school buildings near the Golden State’s maze of freeways has nearly come to a stop.
Diane Bailey, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the reason for that is Senate Bill 352, approved by California lawmakers in 2003.
“Of the hundreds of schools that have been built in the last ten years since this law has been passed only two schools have been built within 500 feet of busy freeways,” said Bailey.
SB 352 declared that road pollution is “negatively impacting the ability of children to learn” and it created a 500 foot freeway buffer zone for construction of new schools.
It’s not an outright ban on such construction, but it does make it very difficult. The law says schools can overcome the restriction if they prove they have no other reasonable alternative, if they conduct testing and mitigation and they face the public scrutiny.
“What we’ve heard from some school districts is they really feel the heat of a public process and being in the public eye,” said Bailey.
KING 5 and Investigate West found 150 schools in Western Washington that border on freeways or major truck routes. Diesel trucks are of great concern because they emit smaller particles that are harder to filter.
Many of those schools were constructed decades ago, some even pre-date the freeways that are now their neighbors.
But eight of them are sparkling new schools.
“I’m not aware of any state requirements related to the siting of a school next to the freeway,” said Federal Way assistant superintendent Sally McLean.
In 2003, Federal Way schools finished construction of Todd Beamer High. The leading edge of the building is less than 450 feet from Interstate 5.
McLean said the school was designed and constructed as an environmentally friendly building. She said the classrooms are at the back of the complex furthest from the freeway. Intakes that draw in air for the ventilation system face away from the thundering roadway and she says the prevailing wind blows traffic fumes away from the school.
“We were very aggressive in implementing these standards even though they weren’t required for us to comply with at the time,” said McLean.
But it doesn’t appear there was much debate about whether the proximity to the freeway was safe. The 40-acre site was approved unanimously by the school board.
Experts say Washington state should have more requirements about placing kids so close the traffic pollution.
“I think parents need to think about it and we as a community and the schools need to be thinking about it, as well,” said Dr. Karr. “We have a really rich, robust evidence base linking these two things, it’s time to take that into our policy.”
Likewise, there are no special rules for older schools that are near freeways or truck routes.
The Seattle School district has just announced that it is seeking bids for an upgrade to the nearly 100 year old ventilation system at the former John Marshall High School.
Marshall’s playground is right under I-5, near Greenlake in Seattle.
In September, KING 5 and Investigate West reported that the district was in the midst of a major renovation of the stately school building, but an upgrade to the aging ventilation system was not in the plan.
A spokesman said the district has reconsidered and is putting out the bid for a new filtration system. He could not say how much additional cost would be involved.
“We have to keep an eye on the budget but we’re not going to sacrifice safety and health,” said capitol facilities communications manager Tom Redman.
Read the first story in this series: Exhaust, diesel fumes foul schools (Sept. 5, 2013)
View an interactive map of schools in Washington located near major highways