Toxic Schools Making Kids Sick

The Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a group of environmental activists, says an increasing number of schools across the country are being built near sites contaminated with toxic waste.

These schools may be causing serious health problems for their students.

After Southside High School in Elmira, N.Y. was built on land that had been used for heavy industry for more than 100 years, the local joke was that the pond behind the school never froze. Residents assumed it was full of chemicals.

But today, no one is laughing. At least two dozen current and former students have developed cancer, including Tommy Patros who is one of five Southside students now battling testicular cancer.

"He loved his school," says Tommy's father Andy Patros. "[He was] second in his class, president, athlete, all-around good guy. You think wow, he gave to that school. Did it take something away from him?"

Tommy's school was built on land that has been used for industrial purposes dating back to the Civil War. The community is now struggling with the possibility that the school's location has put students at risk.

This aging industrial complex may seem an unlikely place to build a school but for the Elmira School District, the price was right. Since the factory had already closed, they agreed to sell the land for only $1.

Not Uncommon Across Country

"I wish it was an isolated incident," says Lois Gibbs of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. "Many schools are poisoned. Many students are suffering in the same fashion."

Lois Gibbs blew the whistle about contamination at Love Canal. She has now turned her attention to schools in this new report that cites numerous cases where schools have been built on, or near, industrial sites.

In Houston, Texas, Ceasar Chavez High School sits in the shadow of petrochemical plants.

In Los Angeles, school construction was halted at the Belmont Learning Complex when parents learned that the location was a former oil field.

And in Marion, Ohio, two schools were built on a former military dumping ground. There, as in Elmira, former students have higher than normal rates of leukemia and other rare cancers.

'Invisible Threat'

Today's report also found that several schools are routinely sprayed with toxic pesticides and plagued by air quality problems because of insufficient ventilation and poor maintenance. Such problems are linked to respiratory ailments, including asthma and other life-threatening diseases.

Are schools making kids sick? "Absolutely, all over the country," says Claire Barnett of the Healthy Schools Network.

"These are invisible threats," explains Gibbs. "You can't see it, you can't smell it. Often even when you can see it, you don't think it's a problem."

At Southside, where the relics of industry still stand, tests have found toxic contamination in the soil but not enough to warrant shutting the school down. The district says the students are not at risk, but it admits it would never buy the land today.

"The mere presence of a contaminant in an area in itself isn't necessarily a problem," says Tom Kump, the director of environmental health for the Chemung County Health Department. "With the knowledge that people have today, it wouldn't be built on property like that."

Even so, there are no federal guidelines to make sure the environment at school is safe. Today's report warns that contamination of any kind is a problem when children's health is at stake.