EPA grant beefs up air monitoring at School 21 Benzene causes leukemia and problems of the central nervous system, so people take it seriously. Air monitoring shows that benzene levels on the playground of Indianapolis Public School 21, at 2815 English Avenue, are nearly twice as high as anywhere else in town. On some days, benzene concentrations outside School 21 "approach levels that may cause acute health effects," according to a grant application written by Mike Brooks, section chief in the office of Air Quality at Indiana"s Department of Environmental Management.
Air monitoring shows that benzene levels on the playground of Indianapolis Public School 21, at 2815 English Avenue, are nearly twice as high as anywhere else in town.
Brooks" data impressed the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently granted IDEM $80,000 to buy sophisticated tools for measuring both air pollution and meteorological conditions near School 21. An hourly monitor will replace a two-year-old rooftop canister that has been grabbing 24-hour composite air samples at School 21. "Benzene levels are of enough concern to warrant further assessment," according to IDEM"s grant. Dozens of other hazardous air toxins will also be monitored. The grant and the monitoring that preceded it emerged from a remarkable display of responsive government: Two years ago IDEM and the Indianapolis Office of Environmental Services collaborated to sample the air outside School 21 after NUVO raised concerns. ("How Hot is the Heat?" June 1-8, 2000) Since that story broke, the EPA created a "Tools for Schools" program to study air quality at schools and beefed up its attention to "environmental justice," meaning that hazardous pollutants in poor neighborhoods like those surrounding School 21 are on EPA"s radar. Those federal initiatives, along with provocative results from air sampling at School 21, convinced IDEM that now was the time to apply for funds. The EPA warns that, at 22 parts per billion, benzene negatively affects the central nervous system. Along with several other air toxins, benzene exposure is associated with asthma and other respiratory problems, headache, dizziness, vomiting and worse. There"s no telling if the 24-hour reading of16 ppb detected on Oct. 13, 2001, near School 21 held steady all day and night, or if benzene levels spiked beyond 16 ppb from time to time. Likewise on Jan. 14 of this year, when 24-hour readings showed benzene concentrations of 14.25 ppb. If similar concentrations occur again, hourly monitors will indicate whether 400 students are being exposed to dangerous levels of air toxins. Data from air monitors is posted on IDEM"s ToxWatch web page, where citizens can search by site, by pollutant, and by date. By next month, an automatic gas chromatograph (AGC) will be installed outside of School 21 to take hourly measurements of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), including benzene. Near the AGC will be a meteorological monitor, indicating wind conditions. Data from both monitors is expected to show whether benzene levels are dangerous, whether other air toxins are worrisome, and who is likely responsible. Existing data suggests that, while vehicles, gas stations and industrial plants produce benzene, most of what"s being measured might come from Citizens Gas & Coke at 2950 Prospect St., a stone"s throw from School 21"s playground. There, coal is "coked" in huge ovens to produce high-grade fuel that"s sold to various foundries. Byproduct gases are captured and sold to Indianapolis Power & Light, which uses them to operate the second-largest steam system in the nation for heating and air-conditioning downtown buildings. Although most benzene is recaptured, some amount escapes whenever doors to coking ovens are opened, and these "fugitive" gases either blow with the wind or stay put, depending on the weather. "Oftentimes, you get stagnant conditions in valleys, and that leads to higher concentrations because you don"t have wind dispersing the pollutant," noted EPA"s Randy Robinson in Chicago, who provides meteorological support for the grant project. Benzene levels at School 21 are highest when the wind blows from south to north in a direct path from Citizens Gas to the school. Every time a 24-hour monitor showed benzene concentrations above10 parts per billion, the wind had been blowing from the south. Such correlation convinced eight "stakeholder" groups, including the gas utility, to collaborate in the upcoming study. "I know it"s not fair that we"re judging Citizens Gas against coke plants in the middle of nowhere," admitted Dick Van Frank, a stakeholder representing the Audubon Society. On the other hand, a coke plant in the middle of the city warrants close inspection because of potential health risks. "The lag time for leukemia is five or 10 years," Van Frank said, and benzene exposure could also contribute to asthma and liver or kidney problems. As coke plants go, Citizens Gas is held in high regard. Pollution readings "are well below any EPA or recognized number," said Wade Kohlmann, the gas company"s director of environmental affairs. To comply with Clean Air Act laws of the 1980s, Citizens Gas invested millions in vacuum systems and cut benzene emissions by 95 percent. The air wafting from Citizens Gas is cleaner than it"s ever been. Principal Carole Ervin-Browne noted that asthma at School 21 was much more pronounced 15-plus years ago. "If indeed [benzene] is causing a problem, I hope something is done about it. I don"t want anyone to get sick." But in her 31 years at the school, both air quality and health concerns have improved, not gotten worse. As corporate citizens go, the gas company also gets rave reviews from Rachel Cooper, president of South East Umbrella Organization, the neighborhood association. If neighbors "smell something that we"re not used to smelling," they know to call the guard shack on Prospect Street to learn what"s going on, she said. Having lived near the coking plant for most of her life, Cooper knows how dramatic the improvement in air quality has been. "It"s not near as bad as it used to be." Yet, given what today"s scientists know about air pollution, and given advances in monitoring equipment, is it good enough? "From a cancer viewpoint, the numbers here [in Indianapolis] are way over the limits, as they are in the nation as a whole due to gas stations," said IKE"s Tom Neltner. "It looked to me that, on some days, there could be acute health effects." If alarming levels of benzene can indeed be traced to Citizens Gas, the next step could involve fixing or permanently shutting down the oldest coke ovens, Neltner said. In addition to monitoring the air outside School 21, the grant promises to look inside, too, in case molds or other "sick building" fumes are affecting student health. By year end, students at School 21 will be filling out short, anonymous forms whenever they complain about headaches, burning eyes or throats, coughing, upset stomachs or asthma symptoms. Coordinating these reports will be Pam Thevenow, an administrator at the Marion County Board of Health, and Patricia Keirgan, IPS Supervisor of Nursing Services. Regardless of what the AGC and meteorological monitors discover, this EPA grant presents an unprecedented opportunity, suggested John Chavez, administrator for the Indianapolis Office of Environmental Services. Never before has the city gathered so many parties (Citizens Gas, IKE, the Audubon Society, IPS, Marion County Health Department, and IDEM) to study air quality so specifically. "We"ve put together a very complex group of stakeholders, and we got them all on the same page," noted Chavez. Whatever the School 21 readings show, this will be a model for future air studies. "If we see increases in emissions, we can see if they match with increases in health problems," Thevenow said. "I read a lot, and I know that children in New York City use their inhalers more when ozone is above a certain level. Maybe the two sets of [local] data won"t match at all. But it"s a step," she said. "It"s an attempt to figure out what we know and what we don"t know." NOTE TO READER:So you don"t think we occupy a parallel universe (though there are times we wish we did, but that"s another story), we went to press with this week"s paper before the election returns. -Editors