Officials: Columbia schools' low rankings in air quality study not cause for concern

Wednesday, December 17, 2008 | 5:14 p.m. CST; updated 10:37 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 17, 2008

COLUMBIA — Even though USA Today gave two Columbia elementary schools poor air quality scores, parents shouldn't be alarmed.

The study, released Dec. 8, ranked nearly 128,000 schools across the country for emissions of hazardous chemicals. Field Elementary and Benton Elementary were ranked in the eighth percentile, meaning that only seven percent of the schools surveyed were ranked lower.

However, the results might not be cause for alarm, said Missouri Department of Natural Resources Air Pollution Control spokesperson Rebecca Birke Scheuler.

"The data and how they used it was a little bit flawed," she said.

Chlorine from the Columbia Municipal Power Plant was listed as the main air pollutant in the schools' vicinity. However, the power plant emitted a total of zero chlorine in 2007, according to Jeff Bennett, Air Quality Modeling Chief for the DNR air pollution control program.

The USA Today study was conducted over two years in collaboration with researchers and scientists at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the University of Maryland at College Park. The researchers used data collected in 2005 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory program.

Bennett said the flaw probably occurred because the study does not distinguish between chlorine emissions and chlorine stored on the power plant's site. He said the air toxicity in the study was not determined by estimating chlorine emissions but by estimating the chlorine stored in the power plant, where it is used to treat water. The water treatment emits hydrogen chloride, which Bennett said is "not nearly as toxic as chlorine gas."

Although errors have been found in the study, the DNR is still taking it seriously. Bennett plans to investigate air quality in the southeastern part of the state, where schools were also found to have high levels of air toxicity.

Jack Jensen, Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education, said the news that Columbia-area elementary schools had scored poorly "came out of the blue." He said the school district has made a concerted effort to improve indoor air quality, adding air conditioning to five elementary schools and upgrading the air conditioning in thirty trailers.

Midway Heights Elementary was in the 83rd percentile, the highest ranking among Columbia schools.

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