Energy & Environment

Checking Out a School's Bad Air Days

A small town in Idaho will test the air with a sophisticated computer model to find out whether students and teachers at an elementary school are getting sick from pesticides.
by | April 2001

A small town in Idaho will test the air with a sophisticated computer model to find out whether students and teachers at an elementary school are getting sick from pesticides.

The source of the suspected problem is a telephone pole plant down the hill from the school. For the past 60 years, the plant has been treating the wood poles to protect them from insect damage. The firm dips them in concrete vats containing heated oil mixed with pentachlorophenol, a chemical pesticide that is on the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality's list of toxic pollutants.

For years, teachers and students have come down with headaches, nausea, dizziness and runny noses whenever the foul-smelling fumes drift uphill and through schoolhouse windows. After a few staff members were diagnosed with cancer, parents and educators wondered whether there might be a serious hazard.

But documenting the risk is neither easy nor inexpensive. To try to monitor the fumes, "we'd have to ring the site with samplers," says Dan Redline, an air-quality specialist in the state's DEQ. "We just don't have the equipment to do that kind of special monitoring."

Instead, the agency is hiring a computer-consulting firm to develop a model of what flows through the air when the poles are treated with the pesticide. The study will examine the exact distance from the vats to the school, look at weather data from the past five years and attempt to figure out how much of the pesticide gets into the air from the vats.

The cost will be between $1,000 and $2,000, and Redline thinks the results could be just as conclusive as actual emissions modeling. School officials have their doubts, but the agency hopes to get the results before the spring pesticide treatment takes place.

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