Commentary: Children Face Serious Environmental Health Risks at Schools

By Susan Vaughan and Kathleen McCowin

The discussion and planning for re-opening of schools is all about environmental health risk management. San Francisco Unified School District board members and union representatives are working hard to get schools fully re-opened while protecting everyone from Covid-19.

They should also tackle two other environmental health risks at schools — tire crumb turf and leaf blowers.

Late last year, a scientific study revealed a possible link between car tires and alarming decreases in salmon in the Pacific Northwest. No, cars aren’t driving into rivers and running over salmon, but they might as well be.

A substance in car tires, 6PPD, undergoes a chemical transformation when it encounters atmospheric ozone pollution, becoming a deadly compound, 6PPD-quinone. This substance runs off into waterways. It could be responsible for reductions in salmon runs — salmon are now at five percent of their historic levels.

So what is the link between tires, salmon, and schools? Since scientists suspect a link between 6PPD-quinone and a drop in salmon populations, we should also be alarmed about tire crumb playing fields at public school grounds throughout San Francisco and at the Beach Chalet and other soccer fields where children play — and where outdoor classes may be held, once schools reopen.

In fact, in 2009 a soccer coach at the University of Washington, Amy Griffin, started a list, which she maintains to this day, of athletes who play on tire crumb turf who have contracted cancer. Though no definitive connection has been made between the turf and cancer, the organization PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, supports her work.

There is an additional concern: Covid-19. A study at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found an association between breathing polluted air and higher death rates from Covid-19. So let’s be clear: toxins from tires released into our air and water are pollutants.

Parents and their children should know: How many schools have tire crumb playing fields and how long have they been there? In other words, how many students may have been exposed to the toxins in this turf? And are there plans to replace them?

The SFUSD should also examine its use of leaf blowers. These tools cause air and noise pollution, yet the school district employs these machines throughout the district. Why? They are bad for everybody — students, staff, neighbors, and workers who use them.

According to Peter Bahouth, former executive director of Greenpeace, writing for the Dallas Morning News on Dec. 21, 2020, “Operating a gas-powered leaf blower for one hour emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry about 1,100 miles, or approximately the distance from Chicago to Houston. Particulate matter linked to cancers, heart disease, asthma and other serious ailments, lingers in the air for days in droplets so small that the body has no way to filter them from entering the lungs. Most affected are children, the elderly and, of course, the operators of these machines.”

Read that again: most affected are the children. Bahouth recommends using rakes and brooms instead. Remember them?

The school district is tackling sugar and salt-laden processed food served in cafeterias. Let’s also focus on the air children breathe. Get rid of tire crumb turf and leaf blowers.

Susan Vaughan is a writer and educator. Kathleen McCowin is a soccer mom, lawyer and scientist.

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