One in three U.S. schoolchildren attends school within the danger zone of a high-risk chemical facility, according to a report and interactive map released today by the Center for Effective Government. These children face the risk of chemical leaks and explosions simply by going to school. Safer chemicals and technologies would reduce the danger to our children, and they should be required whenever feasible.
Kids in Danger Zones
Our analysis found that nearly 19.6 million students attending 40,000 schools in 48 states fall within the vulnerability zone of a high-risk chemical facility. In other words, 36 percent of U.S. schoolchildren – at least one in three – face the risk of a chemical disaster on a daily basis.
Our analysis also revealed the following unsettling facts:
- Half of all children at risk (10.3 million) are in more than one vulnerability zone. The school most at risk in the country – San Jacinto Elementary in Deer Park, Texas – is in the vulnerability zones of 41 different facilities.
- The metropolitan regions of Houston, Texas; Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana face the highest risks. Schools in these cities are in more vulnerability zones than anywhere else in the nation.
- In 102 counties across 22 states, every single child attends school within a vulnerability zone. Texas, Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana have the highest number of high-risk counties.
- There are ten facilities that each put more than 500,000 students at risk. The Kuehne Chemical Company in South Kearny, New Jersey has a 14-mile vulnerability zone that includes most of Manhattan and puts 861,000 students at risk.
- In Utah, Rhode Island, Texas, Louisiana, and Nevada, at least 60 percent of students are at risk of a chemical catastrophe.
- The states with the most children at risk also happen to be the most populated states: California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New York.
What Can You Do to Help?
One in three is an unacceptably high number of schoolchildren at risk. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to reduce facility vulnerability zones and protect the health of our nation’s children.
EPA is considering improvements to its Risk Management Program, including a requirement for facilities to switch to safer chemicals and technologies whenever feasible. Safer chemicals would reduce or eliminate vulnerability zones and protect nearby schools and communities. In fact, if all facilities in our study shrunk their vulnerability zones in half, 11 million fewer children would be in vulnerability zones.
Safer chemicals are feasible and cost-effective across a range of industries. For example, drinking water and wastewater treatment plants across the country have shifted from using dangerous chlorine gas to less hazardous alternatives like liquid chlorine or ultraviolet radiation (UV) to treat water. Similarly, the Clorox Company switched from using chlorine gas to liquid chlorine in all seven of its bleach manufacturing plants. This action removed 13 million Americans from vulnerability zones.
However, until EPA makes safer chemicals a requirement, many facilities will continue using outdated chemicals and processes that put their communities at risk. There are many things that you can do to urge EPA action and to put pressure on facilities in your community:
- Visit the interactive map and find contact information for the facilities putting your community’s children at risk. Contact these companies and ask them if they have a plan to use safer chemicals. Or, you can start a petition or letter-writing campaign to pressure them to use safer chemicals.
- View our state fact sheets to learn about risks specific to your state. Contact the schools most at risk and ask if they have an emergency plan in place for a chemical catastrophe.
- Give teachers the curriculum materials that help students explore the map and take action.
- Inform others in the community about these risks. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. Share the map and report with local officials and urge them to take action.
Together, we can put pressure on EPA to improve chemical regulations and protect the safety of our children. For additional action steps and resources, visit our project’s landing page.
How We Mapped the Chemical Hazards
The interactive map includes 3,429 high-risk facilities across the country that report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Program (RMP). Nearly 13,000 facilities must report to this program because they use or store large quantities of certain hazardous chemicals. Among other requirements, facilities must calculate the maximum distance from the facility that could be impacted by a release or explosion of their largest container of hazardous chemicals. This distance is known as a "vulnerability zone."
We examined a select number of facilities based on the number of people they put at risk and their industry categories. We used Geographic Information System (GIS) software to map the facilities. We then obtained their vulnerability zone information and mapped these as red circles surrounding the facilities. Finally, we mapped each public and private elementary and secondary school in the nation.
Previous Report and the Need for Transparency
This project builds off of an earlier map we released in April to mark the one-year anniversary of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion. The map included all 12,728 facilities reporting to EPA’s Risk Management Program. It also included every U.S. public school located within a mile of these facilities. We found that one in 10 students – 4.6 million – go to schools within a mile of such facilities.
However, the actual area that could be affected by a chemical release or explosion often extends beyond one mile. Unfortunately, public access to such vulnerability zone information is restricted. Individuals are only allowed to review 10 facilities’ risk management plans each month and only from designated federal reading rooms. Due to these challenges, we restricted our analysis to facilities in large urban areas or belonging to one of seven industry types.*
Even with a fraction of facilities represented, the number of students at risk increased fourfold – from 4.6 to 19.6 million. This is because the vulnerability zones often extend beyond one mile and can be as large as 25 miles or more. If we were able to feasibly access vulnerability zone information for the remaining 9,299 facilities, the number of children at risk would likely be even higher.
The difficulty in obtaining RMP data is troublesome. Most parents are likely unaware that their child may be at risk of a chemical catastrophe. Local leaders are often similarly unfamiliar with the dangers, especially when high-risk facilities are located miles away or in another county. Without making RMP data readily accessible, communities will remain in the dark and improvements to regulations slow coming. We urge EPA to make RMP data more readily available so that communities can be aware of dangers and be equipped to take action.
For more resources, visit our project landing page.
* These included potable water treatment, wastewater treatment, commercial bleach manufacturing, electric power production, petroleum refining, pulp and paper production, and chemical manufacturing.
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