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Javier Sierra Headshot

A Toxic Lesson

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The jingling gets louder and louder as you approach any of the four petrochemical plants that surround Cesar Chavez High School. When you arrive at any of them, you realize the jingling comes from the hundreds of aluminum tags attached to the maze of pipes making up the facilities.

But this music is deadly. Each tag marks a leak of some of the most toxic substances known. Also, the closer we get to the plants, the more unbearable the stench of rotten eggs caused by the emissions becomes.

The school is in the Manchester barrio, the most polluted in Houston, which is the most polluted city in America. Each year, 10 petrochemical plants in and around Manchester spew 1.9 million pounds of air pollutants, more than in any other place in the U.S. According to a Houston Chronicle expose, the levels of three known carcinogens in Manchester -- 1,3 butadiene, benzene, and chloroform -- by far exceed maximum federal levels.

In the "Strawberry Capital of the World," Watsonville, on California's Central Coast, a predominantly Latino elementary school lies in the bottom of a shallow valley, almost completely surrounded by growing fields. The fields have been fumigated with some of the most toxic pesticides in use, including methyl bromide, an infamous carcinogen. Its name is Salsipuedes ("get out if you can") Elementary School.

These and many other predominantly Latino schools throughout the country have a lot in common: they all are built in dangerously toxic places that put the students' health in danger.

According to a study by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, in the states of Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and New York, there are half a million students in schools only half a mile from a toxic dump. Another study in Texas revealed that 200,000 students attend schools located less than two miles from a chemical plant.

In our country, a school can be built in any abandoned toxic site, and only seven states ban school construction in active toxic sites. In other words, up until just a few weeks ago, we Americans seemed to have no remorse about sending our most precious resource, our children, to attend school next to our society's toxic waste.

And I say weeks because it was on March 31 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), breaking with eight years of total apathy by the Bush administration, announced that it will investigate 62 schools in 22 states to measure the toxicity of the air breathed by those students.

"As a mother, I understand that concerned parents deserve this information as quickly as we can gather and analyze it," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, pledging that once the results are known, she will act swiftly "to protect our children at their schools."

The EPA decision was based on a December expose by USA Today, which revealed that the air breathed in 435 schools throughout the country seemed to be more toxic that that of an Ohio school that was shut down in 2005 because its air quality was unacceptable.

In more than half of the investigated schools, students were in danger of contracting cancer and respiratory diseases because of the presence of toxic compounds. In seven of those schools, the levels of heavy metals, such as manganese and chrome, and carcinogens, such as benzene and naphthalene, far exceeded maximum federal levels.

"It's not enough to insist on a better education," says Juan Parras, a Texas activist who has been fighting for years to move Cesar Chavez High School to a safe location. "We have to remove the poisons our children are exposed to from the school equation."

And the least we all could do in this month when we celebrate Earth Day is to learn this toxic lesson.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit for more information.

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