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The Invisible Hazard Afflicting Thousands of Schools

In traffic-clogged Southern California, plenty of people grasp the dangers of kids attending class close to busy roads and their largely invisible clouds of air pollution. But that’s not nearly so well understood in the rest of the country — even though the problem stretches from coast to coast.

Nearly 8,000 U.S. public schools lie within 500 feet of highways, truck routes and other roads with significant traffic, according to a joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. That’s about one in every 11 public schools, serving roughly 4.4 million students and spread across every state in the nation. Thousands more private schools and Head Start centers are in the same fix.

Pollution is higher on and near busy roads, a toxic mix that can stunt lung growth, trigger asthma attacks, contribute to heart disease and raise the risk of cancer. Newer research suggests that what’s spewed out of tailpipes may also harm children’s ability to learn and could play a role in brain maladiesassociated with old age. Almost everyone gets a dose on a regular basis — tiny particles that batter the body’s defenses, carcinogens like benzene, chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — but the people living, working or trying to learn very close to roads with heavy traffic get more. And more is worse for health, especially among children.