Hidden hazards: Hundreds of public schools are near a heavily polluting roads

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September 18, 2019

As residential development has boomed in many corners of the city and several school districts are bursting at the seams, the city is opening several new schools this year and in the coming years. But finding space for these buildings is rarely easy. 

Many end up being built on less-than-desirable parcels, often near heavily trafficked roads, which could potentially expose children and educators to high levels of pollution.

For example, this September, Jackson Heights’ P.S. 398 is welcoming students to a new five-story building for 476 students that is just 200 feet from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, according to an analysis from home search platform Localize.city.  Next September, in Sunset Park, P.S./I.S. 746 is expected to open in September 2020 in the shadow of the BQE, and P.S./I.S. 667, a new 1,000-seat pre-K – eighth grade school in East New York, will open near two high-trafficked corridors and truck routes.  In East Elmhurst I.S. 419, a 650-seat middle school, is slated to open for the 2021 school year and sits at an extremely busy corner where Astoria and Ditmars boulevards converge at the entrance to the Grand Central Parkway. A new 180-seat pre-K in Gowanus is set to open in 2021 along the Ninth Street truck route, and in between the heavily trafficked Third and Fourth Avenues.

Pollution levels are generally highest within 500 feet of major roads, warns the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

There are 244 public schools within 500 feet of major highways (motorways, trunks and primary roads), according to Localize.city, which shows the pros and cons of every address, including whether a new school is being built near a heavily polluted road or there’s a cluster of neighborhood schools near polluted roadways.

“When parents debate how to rank their child’s pre-K programs or elementary schools, they often pay attention to the quality of the teaching, what kinds of art and enrichment is available and whether there’s a nice outdoor playground,” said Liat Halpern, an urban planner at Localize.city

“They might not pay attention to hidden hazards of air quality, even though pollution could have a big impact on their children’s ability to learn. After all, kids attend city schools 180 days a year, often running around at recess every day, breathing in the air — and potentially toxic fine particulate matter,” Halpern continued. “We think it’s important for parents to have this kind of information when they’re making decisions about where to live because often their choices are linked to nearby schools.”

In Sunset Park, for instance, 14 schools are located near heavy-traffic roads that potentially expose children to high levels of air pollution.  These schools are within 500 feet of main routes like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as well as Third and Fourth avenues, 39th and 65th streets. Many of these are noisy truck routes where outdated diesel engines rumble along, spewing particularly noxious fumes. 

The EPA found that prolonged exposure to vehicular air pollution is linked to negative health outcomes like impaired lung development in children and increased cancer risk. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggested that students switching to schools in the same ZIP code with higher levels of traffic pollution tend to see declines in test scores, more behavioral incidents and increased absences. 

Some states have taken measures to prevent new schools from being built near heavily polluted roadways. California, for instance, passed a law in 2003 banning elementary and secondary schools from being sited within 500 feet of heavily trafficked freeways. The law, however, misses many kids. It does not include preschools that are not located in public schools or daycare centers — which perhaps serve the most vulnerable kids when it comes to lung development. The law also can’t do much for the state’s existing schools. You can’t simply shut all of the windows and doors since the toxins — fine particulate matter — can still seep through. Now some California schools are getting funding for high-grade air filters. 

The EPA recommends reducing traffic-related pollution exposure by upgrading filtration systems in classrooms, which can be more complicated in buildings that don’t central air conditioning systems. School staff should be trained on indoor air quality issues and students should avoid strenuous activities, like phys ed class or sports, during peak traffic times, the agency suggested. It also advised schools to upgrade bus fleets so they can cut cut down on toxic emissions as well as reduce car and bus idling around the school. Schools should also consider installing vegetative barriers, the agency advised. 

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