The Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday it would monitor air outside North Charleston's Chicora Elementary School in a nationwide effort to determine whether toxic chemicals from nearby industries pose health hazards to children.
Chicora is in a low-income neighborhood near the old Navy base and is the only school in South Carolina on the EPA's testing list.
"That's awesome," Dorothy Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said about the new monitoring program. "North Charleston seems to be the epicenter of toxic environmental issues and dumping, so I think this testing needs to be done."
Working with local and state health officials, the EPA over the next three months will install air monitoring equipment at Chicora and 61 other schools across the country.
The testing program comes on the heels of an investigation last year by USA Today and several universities that found air outside hundreds of schools in South Carolina and elsewhere had high levels of toxic chemicals.
Dubbed "The Smokestack Effect," the newspaper's report gave particularly bad air pollution grades to Chicora Elementary, Mary Ford Elementary, Charlestowne Academy, Academic Magnet High and North Charleston High.
Only 168 schools out of more than 120,000 had worse air than what's outside Chicora. The two most prevalent pollutants near the North Charleston schools were manganese, which can cause mental disturbances and physical problems, and chromium compounds, which can cause numerous health issues.
"As a mother, I understand that concerned parents deserve this information as quickly as we can gather and analyze it," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. The program will cost about $2.25 million. Jackson said the data from the 62 schools will help officials decide what steps might be taken next.
While the focus of the study is on schools, some said the data also will help show how industries affect nearby neighborhoods.
"This area of the Neck is just 1.5 miles across," said Nancy Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League. "So testing near Chicora Elementary will give neighborhoods a good idea of what they're breathing, too."
The EPA's testing program also will save the county school district some money. After the USA Today report came out, school officials said they planned to do their own tests. Mark Cobb, the district's executive director of facility services, said the EPA program allows the district to avoid an estimated $20,000 to $25,000 in testing costs.