Clearing the Air in Carlisle: Sentinel News

Note: Due to its comprehensive health news coverage, this particular article has been included in its entirety.

January 11th, 2009: The Sentinel News

Clearing the Air in Carlisle

By Jason Scott, Sentinel Reporter

 Multiple trucks occupy the intersection of West Street and High Street in Carlisle Friday morning. (Jason Malmont/The Sentinel)It’s no secret that the Carlisle area is a crossroads for commerce.

Trucks routinely travel through the area — on major highways like Interstate 81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike — to and from several large distribution warehouses and driving the local economy.

But they also contribute to the area’s poor air quality, which ranks among the nation’s worst.

Air pollution’s effects on health have long been the subject of discussion in the Carlisle area.

Most recently, industrial pollution was the topic of a special USA Today report last month which it called “The Smokestack Effect.” It used data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 to analyze chemical exposure at 128,000 schools across the country.

Carlisle area schools, including Carlisle Early Education Center and Cornerstone Christian Academy, ranked in the first percentile of highly polluted zones in that study — meaning that 99 percent of schools in the country have better air quality.

All of the schools in the Carlisle Area School District fell in the ninth percentile, while others around Cumberland County fared a little better.

“Most of the air quality problems are outside of the school’s control,” said Fred Baldwin, a Carlisle Area school board member, though noting officials have been working to limit idling of the district’s own bus fleet.

The issue is serious enough, he said, that there should be additional discussions by the district on what more it could do.

“If we don’t spend a little time talking and thinking about it, we might overlook it,” Baldwin said.

Community awareness

Patricia Niemitz, a nurse at Hamilton Elementary School, said air pollution is a health issue for everyone that lives in the Carlisle area and it “needs to be looked at community-wide.”

Among the biggest advocates for clean air over the past few years has been the Clean Air Board of Central Pennsylvania, which lobbied for state legislation passed last October that limits idling of diesel vehicles like trucks and buses.

“It’s good to be making people in the community aware of the issues,” Niemitz said, citing the Clean Air Partnership formed in the fall by CAB, Carlisle Regional Medical Center and The Sentinel to set up a real-time air monitor in Carlisle to measure fine particulate matter.

The air monitor, located at The Sentinel building on East North Street, is a “positive resource” for the community, she explained, and one to which she refers parents concerned about their children’s health. The Sentinel publishes daily air monitor readings in the newspaper, and results are updated hourly on the newspaper’s Web site, www.cumberlink.com.

In reviewing annual data, said Mary Franco, the district’s head nurse, the school has noticed a slight increase over the last 10 years in children diagnosed with asthma, which may suggest a link to the air conditions in the area.

Fine air particulate matter, or PM 2.5, is the most worrisome to health experts.

PM 2.5 is dangerous because the particles are small enough to penetrate into the deepest part of the lungs, directly linking to health conditions such as asthma, bronchitis and chronic respiratory illness.

Children are more vulnerable to the health risks of PM 2.5, according to health officials, because their immune and respiratory systems are still developing.

Diesel vehicles like trucks and buses are among the major contributors to PM 2.5 levels, along with power plants, wood burning and industrial processes.

‘Very significant’

There is no question that air quality is an issue in this area, said Bets Clever, executive director of the Carlisle Area Health and Wellness Foundation.

In the 2007 health status assessment conducted by CAHWF, 13 percent of adults in the Carlisle area reportedly had asthma — up from 10.4 percent in the 2002 study.

That was higher than the state average of 12 percent and the national average of 12.5 percent.

Asthma in children was only 9.4 percent, Clever said, compared to 12.6 percent nationally.

The random survey was sent out to 1,300 people in the foundation’s coverage area, which includes 135,000 people in the central and western parts of Cumberland and Perry counties.

The number of children with asthma was lower than Clever expected, she said, but she still called the percentage “very significant.”

In compliance

According to the USA Today report, Carlisle SynTec, a provider of commercial roofing products, is one of the industrial polluters deemed most responsible for the toxic air around the Carlisle area schools.

Frog, Switch and Manufacturing Company, a worldwide leader in manganese steel castings used by the mining industry, and the PPL Brunner Island steam electric station in York Haven, were also listed as top industrial polluters in the area.

Carlisle SynTec emits diisocyanates, antimony and antimony compounds, zinc and zinc compounds and xylene, which are considered toxic to the schools, the report said.

Chris Sager, manager of environmental health and safety for the company, said in response to the series that the company is committed to the protection of human health and the environment in all areas where it conducts business.

“The statistics reported by USA Today in its special report on toxic air and America’s schools are estimates based on data provided by a number of local businesses, of which Carlisle SynTec is included,” he said in a statement. “The local air quality is affected by many factors, and cannot be attributed to any one specific manufacturing operation.”

The company’s construction materials division meets or exceeds all EPA and state regulations for environmental compliance, he said: “Our facilities are permitted, inspected, audited and evaluated on an annual basis by the EPA, DEP and internally for compliance with federal, state and local regulations.”

Frog, Switch and Manufacturing Company emits manganese and manganese compounds, nickel and nickel compounds, chromium and chromium compounds, lead and lead compounds and molybdenum trioxide, according to the report.

Company officials disputed that characterization.

“Frog, Switch has a strong and positive environmental record,” said Daniel M. Gibbs, a company spokesman. “Our air emissions are fully permitted by the appropriate authorities. Furthermore, we are subject to strict metals exposure rules enforced by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

“Frog, Switch will participate with any on-going discussions relative about these issues.”

State response

The state Department of Environmental Protection has been working with school administrators and county level agencies to measure air quality near eight schools in Beaver, York, Erie, Lawrence and Allegheny counties.

“So far our testing has not shown the high levels of pollutants that the USA Today studies have shown, but we’re not finished and we’re not ready to release the results yet,” Teresa Candori, DEP’s press secretary, told The Sentinel at the end of December.

DEP had already begun testing the air quality around one of the schools mentioned, Midland Elementary-Middle School in Beaver County, before the stories were published.

The state testing is more comprehensive, Candori explained. Unlike the USA Today report, it measures actual exposure over a period of time rather than just a snapshot at any one moment. USA Today took data from the EPA and ran it through a mathematical model to determine what were likely, based on that data, to be high pollution zones.

By testing the model against the actual readings, the DEP will see if there is a need for further testing in other areas. There are currently no plans to test Cumberland County schools.

“There is still testing being done,” Candori said Friday about the progress. It will be ongoing for several months, she noted, so it is unknown when officials results will be made available.

DEP is also working with the Allegheny County Health Department and Philadelphia Air Management Services to measure the air quality around other schools in those counties.

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