Another example of the benefit to the public of a healthy and robust media industry is in USA Today this week. The paper spent eight months using a computer model developed by the EPA to figure out what kinds of air pollution likely existed around schools. What it discovered was that 435 schools "in 170 cities across 34 states" probably have levels of air pollution outside them worse than existed at a school in Ohio where cancer risks were deemed 50 times higher than acceptable. (Not surprisingly, all the schools highlighted in the article are in poor communities — and since you can be damn sure they'd tell you if the "Gossip Girls" kids were breathing toxic fumes eight hours a day, this is a statement about environmental justice, not editorial decision-making at USA Today.)

Meredith Hitchens Elementary, outside Cincinnati, was across the street from a plastics plant. The Ohio EPA collected air samples and found carcinogen levels so dangerous that the school district shut the school down. It took a shareholder-owned company (whose stock has gotten hammered since the growth of the Web) to use "the government's most up-to-date model for tracking toxic chemicals" and figure out how other schools might be faring. The software "predicts the path of toxic chemicals released by thousands of companies" based on their own reporting. One toxicologist said it was about 50-50 whether the modeling was over- or under-estimating the problem; another said it was probably much worse than the model indicated because it was based on companies' own reporting; self-reported data notoriously undercounts.

The article's authors, Blake Morrison and Brad Heath, make an interesting and in my opinion wise journalistic choice in breaking away from the statistics a couple of times in the article to quote students who went to the most at-risk schools and developed cancer. A doctor or public health official would probably cringe at this because it's notoriously difficult to say what caused a particular person's cancer. This is why the lawsuits depicted in "A Civil Action" and "Erin Brockovich" were such triumphs; the victims were up against legions of doctors taking the stand to say they couldn't honestly say that the any plaintiff's illness was the result of the dumping by the companies on trial.

But public-interest journalism of this kind is as much about getting people to read it as it is about spending eight months hovering over reams of data. The prosecutors in the OJ Simpson murder case spent weeks explaining to the jury complicated DNA analysis while the defense was waiting to play a single audio tape of a racist cop and stage a scientifically-worthless demonstration of the accused trying on a glove. The point is, if nobody's paying attention, it doesn't matter how sound your science is. And if Morrison and Heath hadn't brought in some dramatic tearjerkers from cancer victims, they would have lost a lot of readers.

So where was the EPA while USA Today was using the agency's own software to find out something valuable and new about keeping children, who are at greatest risk from these poisons because they're still developing, safe from industrial pollution? Sitting there with its thumb up its ass, is where. An EPA committee wrote seven years ago to then-EPA boss Christine Todd Whitman recommending she do something about "environmental health threats at schools." It took three months for her underling to respond with a list of all the wonderful things it was doing for kids — not a word about the recommendation of the agency's own committee. There's an agency that deals with workplace health and safety (though it's been of dubious merit in reducing workplace injuries), Morrisson and Heath wonder, why aren't we more concerned about the pollution around where kids spend half their waking hours or more? Because we've been living with a government for eight years full of people who don't believe in what government does. Unfortunately for millions, it's taken the most dangerous threat to our economic system in 79 years to get a majority of Americans to wake up to the fact that there are actually some things nobody but government can do — such as make rules about chemicals to keep children safe — and some of these things might be necessary for the functioning of modern society. (Even Newt Gingrich now knows this is true.)

But I digress. Despite the difficulty of proving causality, indeed the difficulty of tracking how these poisons move through the air and the expense of collecting air samples, wouldn't it make sense to just not put schools and carcinogen-emitting industrial sites within close proximity? Congress, in its infinite wisdom, legislated "drug-free zones" mandating stiffer penalties for those breaking narcotics laws within 500 feet of a school; how about toxic-gas-free zones?

This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008 and now resides on the MNN site. (Copyright Environ Press 2008.)

USA Today tracks air pollution in schools
Using a computer program, the paper predicted how much air pollution was reaching 435 schools across the country.