Along major roadways that connect the sprawling limits of San Diego County, 39 schools lie within 500 feet of smog-filled traffic corridors, a distance that air-pollution researchers believe significantly increases the risk of pediatric asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Below I-5, where cars, trucks and buses queue on their way north to the Gaslamp District, there’s a Catholic school. Off I-15 in City Heights, a health-sciences charter high. Next to I-8 in Mission Valley, a center for kids with autism and learning disabilities.

But a California law that claims to “protect school children from the health risks posed by pollution from heavy freeway traffic” does not apply to the 39 schools in San Diego County that lie close to major roads, including two private schools located in communities that are among those most burdened by pollution in the state.

The law itself has been limited by weak environmental regulations that put the enforcement burden on the backs of private citizens.

“Being close to traffic pollution is one of the greatest environmental threats experienced by the children of San Diego,” said Dr. Penelope Quintana, an associate professor at San Diego State University who studies the biological impact of air pollution. “They’re a very vulnerable population.”

Air-pollution researchers have established a strong link between children’s proximity to air pollution — in school and at home — and pediatric asthma. Pediatric asthma is “a leading cause of emergency department visits, hospitalizations and missed school days,” according to the Mayo Clinic, and symptoms can follow children into their adult lives.

In 2009, the most recent year for which complete data is available, the state’s Environmental Health Tracking Program found that more than 5,200 San Diego county children under age 18 visited the emergency room for asthma treatment and 850 were hospitalized.

Children are among those most at risk of pollution-related respiratory illnesses because their lungs and immune systems are not fully developed and because they generally spend more time outdoors than adults.

San Diego County is home to the fourth highest number of pediatric asthma cases in the country.

The toxicity of the air can vary based on a number of factors, including the direction of the wind and the mix and volume of the chemicals floating in it. But the closer children are to major roadways for long periods of time with no protection from the pollution, the higher the risk of respiratory illness.

“The air pollution has been getting better in San Diego,” said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior director of policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association in California. But the group still gave San Diego’s air quality a failing grade this year because, Holmes-Gen said, “it’s not what we’d consider in the healthy range.”

An investigation led by Seattle-based InvestigateWest in partnership with the Investigative News Network, and more than half a dozen nonprofit newsrooms, including Voice of San Diego, found a dangerous pattern: Schools across the country sit inside the toxic pollution plume of the nation’s busiest freeways.

“Children spend about a third of their day at school, often during the hours of heaviest traffic,” InvestigateWest reported last month. “Many schools sit alongside big, busy roads because that’s where land is cheap and bus access is more convenient.”

In 2003, California amended the state education law to prohibit school districts that receive state funds from “acquiring” school sites within 500 feet of major roadways unless there is no significant health risk or the district has no better option. But the law does not appear to apply to any of the 39 school sites around San Diego County that are close to major roads.

In the map above, gray dots represent public schools and orange dots represent private schools.

“The schools issue is of great concern,” said Holmes-Gen of the American Lung Association. “We supported the law that established the buffer zone. Obviously, the most of concern are the closest to the freeways.”

Of the 39 schools that VOSD found within 500 feet of high-traffic roads, six were within 200 feet, a distance Quintana said was especially troubling.

Two of those six schools, Mt. Erie Christian Academy and Our Lady’s School of Guadalupe Parish, are next to freeways in areas besieged by multiple sources of pollution, including smog, hazardous waste and contaminated groundwater, according to the California Communities Environmental Health Screening project.

Administrators at those schools did not respond to a request for comment.

The children who attend those schools may be at the highest risk of respiratory illness because of what Quintana called a “staggering” amount of truck traffic on I-5 and I-805.

Nearly half of the schools we surveyed are exempt from the law that bars districts from building campuses next to freeways because they are privately operated and do not receive public funds, and 13 public school sites are exempt because they opened before 2003, when the law was passed.

Seven school sites associated with public districts or agencies have been placed within 500 feet of major roadways since the 2003 buffer law was passed. But for a variety of reasons, the law doesn’t seem to apply to them either.

Charter schools are authorized by San Diego Unified to operate at three of those sites (Old Town Academy, America’s Finest Charter and Health Sciences High), said Cynthia Reed-Porter, a spokesperson for the district, but the district does not own the properties.

“Since that is the case, they come under the city’s responsibility to ensure they comply with the California Building Code,” Reed-Porter said.

Fred Yeager, assistant director of the State Department of Education’s school facilities division, told VOSD that most charter schools operate in privately owned buildings, which are governed by local land-use and zoning laws. He said that the buffer law would not apply unless those schools had adopted the law in their founding charters or the schools had received major state funding for facilities construction.

All three of those schools operate in rented facilities, according to administrators. They are exempt from the law because they have not used state funds to acquire the properties, which, public records show, are owned by private corporations.

Reed-Porter said that the law did not apply to two other San Diego Unified schools located inside the pollution buffer zone because the district acquired the land and built the facilities before the law went into effect.

One of those schools, Barnard Asian Pacific Language Academy, just opened last month in a building constructed in 1958. The other, Millennial Tech Middle School, is housed in a facility the district opened in 1962.

The Vista Magnet Middle School of Technology, Science and Math is also exempt from the law because classes are held in a facility that the Vista Unified school district has operated since 1936, according to the district’s business services department.

Another exempted school site houses two programs run by the San Diego County Board of Education’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools division — the East Region Community School of Greater La Mesa and Reflections Central — but the buffer law does not apply because those schools are affiliated with the San Diego County court system, which is exempt from the state’s school facility regulations, said Music Watson, a spokesperson for the Board of Education.

Watson told VOSD that the location of those schools allows the board to reach at-risk students closer to where they live. She said that the schools are located in a one-story facility to reduce the impact of air pollution.

“The district considers the health, safety and security of its children top priority,” said Phil Stover, San Diego Unified’s deputy superintendent for business support services, in a statement to VOSD. “If there were health concerns related to air quality, we would investigate them immediately.”

Stover said San Diego Unified’s safety office was “not aware of any health concerns related to the air quality at district schools within the 500-foot buffer.” He said the district would not purchase land close to freeways in the future.

Schools can reduce the risk of respiratory illnesses by adopting mitigation strategies. In her research, Quintana has found that the most effective strategies include installing new air-filtration systems, putting air conditioners in gym facilities and planting a buffer of trees and vegetation around a school’s perimeter. She said schools should research grant opportunities to help offset the costs.

There is currently no master record of schools’ pollution mitigation-strategies in San Diego County.

Worse yet: There’s a bigger oversight gap here, one that lies within the California Environmental Quality Act, “a self-enforcing statute” that relies on local public agencies, like school districts, to screen for environmental hazards that may exist on or around property they may want to acquire for a school site.

These regulations call on the “lead agency” responsible for a development project — often a city agency or school district — to prepare an Environmental Impact Report and submit it to the state’s Office of Planning and Research when they believe there are environmental issues to investigate.

The Office of Planning and Research can offer its opinion and forward the report to other agencies for review. And the California Environmental Protection Agency can review complaints about environmental hazards, but it can’t do much about them.

The burden of keeping school districts honest about their air quality falls on parents and community groups, who may not be experts on the California Environmental Quality Act.

The state EPA’s advice: Tell the agency responsible for the site that may be exposed to environmental hazards that you want them to do something about it.

“If that public agency does not address your concerns to your satisfaction, then you may choose to hire an attorney and seek enforcement through private litigation, or call the Attorney General’s Complaint Unit,” according to the state EPA’s website.

But the cost and effort required to pursue private litigation could easily keep many parents and community groups from filing lawsuits, rendering the check on the districts ineffective.

Joel Hoffmann was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the...

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