Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Hazardous Chemical Releases Occurring in School Settings, 14 States, 2008-2013

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Hazardous Chemical Releases Occurring in School Settings, 14 States, 2008-2013

Article excerpt


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 54 million students attended 116,240 public and private elementary and secondary schools within the U.S. during the 2011-2012 school year (Bitterman, Gray, & Goldring, 2013). Children spend about one third of their day in school, where they should be provided a healthy learning environment. Many factors, however, can lead to substandard environmental conditions in schools, which can result in serious health problems for students (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [U.S. EPA], 2017a), as well as for school employees. School buildings contain chemicals of varying toxicity for sanitation, pest control, and for educational purposes, such as supplies in science laboratories, art classrooms, automotive repair areas, and vocational arts workshops (Berkowitz, Haugh, Orr, & Kaye, 2002).

Children are inherently more susceptible and vulnerable to many environmental hazards because of their developing bodies and age-associated behaviors (U.S. EPA, 2017a). Studies have shown that student exposure to hazardous chemicals in schools can result in poor academic performance, respiratory issues, and increases in school absenteeism (U.S. EPA, 2017a). Along with the physical and cognitive hazards to children, acute chemical releases in schools impose enormous financial and economic hardships on schools and communities. Remediation, teachers' lost work time, and evacuations can be extremely costly. For example, a school mercury incident in Texas required approximately $900,000 to test and cleanup all of the school's 137,000 square feet (Blaney, 2014), while another incident in Alabama required a 2-week, $517,247 cleanup (Leech, 2013).

News media outlets sometimes report acute hazardous chemical releases in schools. Outside of media reports, however, no single system is responsible for capturing all school chemical releases in the U.S. Therefore, quantifying or characterizing the nature of the incidents and their public health impacts is difficult. To better understand acute chemical incidents at schools and their public health impacts, we analyzed data from the 14 states that participated in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system and the National Toxic Substance Incidents Program (NTSIP).


Our analysis reviewed ATSDR's HSEES (2008-2009) and NTSIP (2010-2013) data. During various periods within this time frame, a total of 14 states participated (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ore gon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin). From 1990-2009, HSEES was a state-based surveillance system used to track the public health impacts of hazardous substance releases (e.g., morbidity, mortality). NTSIP began in 2010 and continued with hazardous substance releases tracking and added a national component and mass incident investigations component (for more information about the HSEES program, please go to Public_Use_File.html and for NTSIP, please go to

Surveillance states used various data reporting sources, including state and local environmental protection agencies, police and fire departments, poison control centers, hospitals, local media, and various federal databases (e.g., U.S. Department of Transportation's Hazardous Materials Incident Reporting Systems and U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center) to collect data on incidents, which was then entered into a secure web-based application.

A major difference in case definition between the two databases is that petroleum (natural gas, crude oil, etc.) incidents were excluded from HSEES unless another hazardous substance was also released; petroleum incidents were included in NTSIP if there was a public health impact such as an evacuation or injury (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [ATSDR], 2016b). …

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