Results Still Pending for Highlands

Highlands Senior High School on Pacific Ave. in Natrona Heights waits patiently, along with other schools in the district, for detailed air quality results from the PADEP. (Photo by Dale Mann)

Highlands Senior High School on Pacific Ave. in Natrona Heights waits patiently, along with other schools in the district, for detailed air quality results from the PADEP. (Photo by Dale Mann)

By Dale Mann

Natrona Heights, Pa. – Students and teachers at Highlands School District may have to wait more than a month for the results of an air quality report taken by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) in response to a recent independent study which showed the district to be below Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, according to ACHD Public Information Officer Guillermo Cole.

“At most, four to six weeks,” said Cole, “Our Obligation is to share it with the school district first and then it’ll become public.” The ACHD released results of the Stowe Rocks tests to school officials there earlier this month.

A study reported and conducted by USA Today, in conjunction with Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, involving ninety-five schools revealed in December that schools in the Highlands School District ranked among the worst in the nation.

Since then, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) has cleared the five other Pennsylvania school districts that were named in the study, according to a February 27, 2009 press release from the DEP.

Cole stated that a number of samples had been collected and analyzed from the Highlands schools, the data for which are currently being reviewed by the ACHD.

Exterior monitoring at the district began in December and is ongoing, but the ACHD has already informed school officials of preliminary “snapshot” test results of the interior air quality, said Highlands School District Public Relations Manager, Misty Chybrzynski.

“They told us that the levels weren’t nearly as high as the reported chromium levels in the USA Today report,” said Chybrzynski, “but they wanted to keep monitoring so that we could have more solid results than the short-term monitoring would show.”

Since then, EPA “snapshots” of air quality at Midland Elementary School in Midland, Pa also reflected dramatically different results than those recorded in the USA Today analysis. The minutes of the Dec. 11, 2008 meeting of the EPA’s Air Quality Technical Advisory Board revealed that the EPA’s “snapshot” of chromium levels at Midland Elementary was ten times less than that reported in the USA Today’s findings.

Chybrzynski said that the ACHD tested for manganese, nickel and lead, in addition to the chromium.

According to the EPA website, Chromium III and VI are the most common air borne forms of the element. While Chromium III normally only manifests in the form of strep throat and minor irritations, Chromium VI is a carcinogen shown to have caused lung cancer during long-term exposure.

In a press release, PADEP Secretary John Hanger reinforced the state’s commitment to ensuring the safety of its citizens, especially as it pertains to children. “Children are especially vulnerable to air borne pollution as they take in more air as a percentage of their body weights than adults,” he said.

Allegheny Ludlum had received early attention from the Valley News Dispatch after the USA Today’s report because of the primacy of chromium in their products and the proximity of their Brackenridge plants to each of the Highlands schools.

Allegheny Ludlum spokesman Dan Greenfield told the Dispatch, that the facility has tried to be a good neighbor to residents and have stayed in compliance with all emission regulations for some time.

“I can tell you that there have been violations intermittently over the past few years,” Cole told the Dispatch, contradicting Greenfield’s assertion. He contended that all of the plant’s recent improvements are in response to a consent agreement signed with the health department in 2006.

Although attendance has slightly fallen in all of the schools in the Highlands district over the past two years, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website, officials aren’t attributing a connection to the air quality.

“I don’t think that that’s a very significant amount,” said Chybrzynski of the decline, “I don’t think it’s related to the air quality.”

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