Working to Keep School Children Protected

Originally published: 
Friday, July 1, 2016, 2 pm

Many count exposing children to toxins among the worst environmental crimes. But studies by SNRE Professor Paul Mohai and Dr. Byoung-Suk Kweon (University of Maryland) show that it is also among the most pervasive: these researchers found that a majority of public schools in Michigan are located in highly polluted areas.

Several years ago, the Kresge Foundation funded a study by Mohai and Kweon on the link between air pollution and student health and academic performance. The researchers examined the distribution of all 3,660 public elementary, middle, junior high and high schools in Michigan and found that 62.5 percent were located in places with high levels of air pollution from industrial sources. Minority students appear to bear the greatest burden: 81.5 percent of African American schoolchildren and 62.1 percent of Hispanic students attend schools in the most polluted zones.

Not content to let their findings rest, Mohai and Kweon sought and were awarded a second grant from the Kresge Foundation: $1 million to draft policy guidelines for school siting in Michigan. In 2013, the researchers assembled a broad group of stakeholders to address the injustice of their original research findings and to devise guidelines for school siting. In the years since their first meeting, the group has made significant progress toward a complete set of proposed guidelines.

There was excitement in the Dana Building last month, as representatives from state and federal government, academia, and community organizations – including key partners from the Detroit chapter of the Sierra Club and the Michigan Environmental Council – gathered once again to continue their important work. A proposed Michigan school siting policy that prioritizes environmental quality is now within reach.

The policy recommendations are expected to be finished by the end of August. Once complete, stakeholders will work to garner significant public and political support for the plans. If you are passionate about safeguarding children from toxic exposure and would like to get involved, please contact Dawn Nelson (anadawn@umich.edu).