California Seeks School Sites Far from Freeway

Lawmakers and scientists agree that building schools close to freeways is a bad idea. The concern is air pollution and the impact it can have on young lungs. But in Los Angeles, where more than 100 new public schools are being built, it's hard to find a site that's not near a freeway.

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Lawmakers and scientists agree on this. Building schools close to freeways is a bad idea. Nobody wants young people breathing all that air pollution. So it's a nice thought, but if you're in Los Angeles, just try to find a site that is not near a freeway.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: A small road, a metal fence, and a concrete barrier are all that separate the Santa Monica freeway from the playground at Marvin Avenue Elementary School.

This is where 10-year-old Arianna Lopez and her schoolmates play at recess.

Ms. ARIANA LOPEZ (Student): It worries me because we're breathing pollutionary(ph) air from the cars; it's like we shouldn't be so next to the freeway.

DEL BARCO: Lopez worries about her best friend who has respiratory problems, and Noma Ramirez(ph) frets about her seven-year-old son, Alex.

Ms. NOMA RAMIREZ (Mother of Alex): As soon he came to the school, he started sick with the breathing problem - asthma. And I think is the reason because the school is right next to the freeway.

DEL BARCO: UCLA Public Health Professor John Froines says freeway contaminates are a definite threat.

DR. JOHN FROINES (University of California, Los Angeles): We now associate particles with asthma and allergic airway disease, cardiovascular disease, and atherosclerosis, lesions in the heart. These small particles penetrate into the brain - oh, and lung cancer.

DEL BARCO: Such findings were the basis of a state law passed four years ago to limit where all new public schools in California could be built. Still, L.A. is constructing five new public schools less than 500 feet away from freeways. And officials are considering even more.

(Soundbite of noise)

DEL BARCO: For example, two new high schools under construction in downtown L.A. are a stone's throw from the 101 and 110 freeways.

Ms. MONICA GARCIA (President, Los Angeles Unified School District Board): LAUSD is in the middle of the largest public works program in the country.

DEL BARCO: School board President Monica Garcia says after three decades of building nothing, L.A. Unified is now trying to play catch-up.

Ms. GARCIA: We're building a hundred and fifty schools in a period of eight years. Absolutely in the middle of an urban area where traffic and congestion as part of our daily life, we have issues around the quality of air. And particularly there are some communities that are surrounded by freeways.

DEL BARCO: So the choices of where to build new schools are limited, says L.A. School Superintendent David Brewer.

Mr. DAVID BREWER (Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District): We clearly do not want to build schools in a hazardous area within, say, 500-1,000 feet off the freeway. But let's face facts: we're in Los Angeles. This is freeway city.

DEL BARCO: Already, 92 L.A. public schools violate the legal limit, says Angelo Bellomo, who heads the School District's Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

Mr. ANGELO BELLOMO (Office of Environmental Health and Safety): We can't regulate, directly regulate the freeway emissions. But we can limit exposure to students that are in our schools by placing a buffer between the active portions of the campus and the freeway. That's one method. Another method is to rely on the fact that our students spend a majority of their time indoors. And so if we can enhance the standard ventilation and filtration equipment, we can improve the quality of air for the time that they're spending indoors.

Dr. FROINES: Yeah. You can close the windows and you can do all that, but it's not going to make the health problem go away.

DEL BARCO: Dr. Froines, who heads UCLA's Pollution Prevention Education and Research Center, says school officials are making a big mistake.

Dr. FROINES: Yes, L.A. is freeway city, but they should be saying to themselves, how can I get schools as far away as possible? Not how can I not follow the law and find excuses to justify it?

DEL BARCO: In the coming months, L.A.'s school board will decide whether to begin construction on at least two more schools near the 110 Freeway that runs the length of the city.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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