Monday, December 30, 2013

Washington day cares close to polluted roads

Small children are most affected by
air pollution, experts say.
It’s a cruel fact of physiology: kids are the hardest-hit victims of air pollution.

Pound for pound, children breathe more than adults, receiving a relatively bigger toxic dose delivered to their developing bodies. And the smaller the child, the bigger the impact. What makes an 8-year-old cough could make an infant stop breathing.

That science takes on particular significance in Washington, where 126 day cares are located beside major roads and where rules about where new facilities can open are not enforced.

Researchers say air pollution from vehicle traffic can aggravate asthma, reduce lung function and boost school absenteeism, as well as promote cancer later in life and harm developing immune systems.

An additional 439 day cares sit within 500 feet of the state’s heaviest truck routes, a new analysis by InvestigateWest shows. The diesel fuel that powers these trucks can spew 100 to 200 times more soot than gasoline engines, and the exhaust is so toxic that the World Health Organization classifies it as a carcinogen.

Nationally, more than 11 million children under 5 are enrolled in regular child care.  In Washington, one-fourth of all toddlers and one-third of all preschoolers attend a licensed child care facility, according to a 2008 survey.

The pollution risks are not always reflected in where parents choose to or are able to enroll their kids.

Just south of Everett along Interstate 5, a hedge separates the playground of Kids ‘N Us Learning Academy from a highway off-ramp. Among the dozens of day cares that fall within the pollution plume of I-5, Kids ‘N Us is one of the closest, its property line just over 300 feet from the heavily traveled road.

In Washington, the murky set of guidelines governing where day cares can operate does little in practice to protect kids from air pollution risks.

State child care licensing code does not restrict where in-home day cares — limited to 12 or fewer kids — can open.

Institutional child care centers, which have an average capacity of 69 kids, are required to be on an “environmentally safe site” and in a neighborhood “free of a condition detrimental to the child's welfare,” according to a state regulation.

The licensing process for a new day care does not require a site review by health officials to determine whether a property is safe from environmental hazards like nearby freeways. Instead, the Department of Early Learning, a fire marshal and the local planning department sign off on a new location. The agency also employs four health specialists to respond to complaints and concerns.

As is the case with schools, the construction of day cares can trigger a State Environmental Protection Act, or SEPA, review. But that process emphasizes air risks stemming from construction like dust and short-term truck traffic rather than ambient air concerns like a nearby highway.

Reducing harm from near-road exposures at day cares is something of a bureaucratic hot potato, with the Washington Department of Early Learning saying it’s not its job to correct for environmental risks, and health officials saying the initial push isn’t theirs to make.

State officials acknowledge that they are a lot more worried about keeping kids safe — meaning, for starters, alive — than in heading off seemingly subtle pollution threats. The high-profile deaths of two children in state-licensed day cares — one an accidental drowning in 2004, the other a death from E. coli in 2010 — focused regulators’ attention on acute threats to children.

Editor's note: This article has been edited for length. 

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