Geographic and social disparities in exposure to air neurotoxicants at U.S. public schools

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Abstract

Children are especially vulnerable to the health and developmental impacts of environmental hazards and they spend significant portions of their days at school. Yet there are no national-level studies examining school-level environmental inequalities and few have examined disparate exposure to neurological air toxicants, even though chronic exposure to air pollution impacts children's brain functioning. We paired information about the geographic locations and demographics of each public school in the US with air neurotoxicant exposure estimates pertaining to 24 known neurotoxicants included in the US Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Toxics Assessment. Using bivariate and multivariate statistics, we tested for environmental injustices in air neurotoxicant exposure at 84,969 US public schools. Metropolitan New York City (EPA Region 2) is the geographic region most burdened by air neurotoxicant exposures at schools since one-third of all schools in that region are in the top 10% (at "high risk") for ambient neurotoxicant exposure among all schools nationwide. Students attending “high risk” public schools nationwide are significantly more likely to be eligible for free/reduced price meals, and to be Hispanic, black, or Asian/Pacific Islander (API). They are significantly less likely to be white or of another race. In a multivariate generalized estimating equation controlling for school district effects, schools with greater proportions of Hispanic, black, and API students, schools with higher enrollment, and schools located in more urban (vs. rural) counties face greater risks. Schools serving the youngest students (e.g., pre-kindergarten) have greater levels of risk than schools serving older students. Across all analyses, this study shows that racial/ethnic minority children are bearing the brunt of air neurotoxicant exposures at school, which may be unequally impacting their school performance and future potential.

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