How the Air NY Students Breathe Harms Their Education

New York students face many challenges to achieving academic success, but here’s one you might not be aware of: the air they breathe.

New York students face many challenges to achieving academic success, but here’s one you might not be aware of: the air they breathe. A recent NYCLU analysis found that about one-third of New York’s students go to school near a major highway. The vast majority of those students are people of color. And it turns out that the pollution students breathe has a major impact on their success and livelihood.

In this episode, we discuss the problem of highway pollution near schools as well as legislation designed to help stop it.


Commentary: NY’s step towards environmental justice


[00:00:00] Simon: Welcome to Rights This Way, a podcast from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of New York State. I’m Simon McCormack, senior staff writer at the NYCLU, and your host for this podcast, which is focused on the civil rights and liberties issues that impact New Yorkers most.

[00:00:24] New York students face many challenges to achieving academic success, but here’s one you might not be aware of: The air they breathe. A recent NYCLU analysis found that about one-third of New York students go to school near a major highway. The vast majority of those students are people of color, and it turns out that the pollution students breathe has a major impact on their success and livelihood.

[00:00:50] In this episode, we’ll discuss the problem of highway pollution near schools, as well as legislation designed to help stop it.

[00:00:58] And here to talk about this with are two guests. Johanna Miller is the director of the NYCLU’s Education Policy Center and Lanessa Owens Chaplin is the director of the Education Policy Center’s Environmental Justice Project. Johanna, Lanessa, thank you for being here on Rights This Way.

[00:01:17] Johanna: Thanks, Simon. Good to be here.

[00:01:19] Lanessa: Thank you, Simon.

[00:01:20] Simon: Great to have you. So I guess, and this is for, for both of you, let’s first just lay out the problem of highway pollution near schools in in New York.

[00:01:31] Lanessa: So, like, a, a really general sense, schools that are within 500 to 600 feet of major roadways, typically see more health-related problems and more developmental problems. There’s a clear correlation between your proximity to high traffic hit roads to increase in asthma, developmental delays, performing poorer on tests, lower IQ scores.

[00:01:56] Um, so there’s a real impact for students who attend schools near major roadways, because they are constantly exposed to vehicle pollution.

[00:02:05] Johanna: I think indoor air quality has become a much more important focus, especially after COVID-19. Everyone was sort of talking about buying air filters for inside of classrooms. And one option that was often touted to have cleaner or safer air was to open, open the windows. But for a school that’s situated really close to, like, a major highway, opening the windows actually could be really devastating for kids, particularly kids who might have asthma or other breathing problems.

[00:02:33] So, um, that became a really big concern, particularly in Covid, because it showed this inequity in do you go to a school where opening the windows is a good option and can actually make your air safer, or is it gonna make your air worse.

[00:02:47] Simon: And Lanessa, I’m curious, how big of a problem is this?

[00:02:52] Lanessa: I guess it depends on what demographic you’re looking at, right? Because obviously there’s a real, um, there’s a real problem that’s tied to race-based past practices, and so, like, environmental racism is alive and well when you’re talking about, um, kids who are close to schools. And so if you’re asking a Black community, it’s a huge problem, right?

[00:03:10] Because over 80% of these schools are Black and Brown student populations. And so looking at this from a demographic standpoint, this is a huge problem for neighborhoods who are Black and Brown. Um, we have over 475 schools, predominantly Black and Brown student populations, um, 100% are low income populations, who attend schools near major roadways.

[00:03:31] And so there’s, like Johanna said, there’s this huge inequity of who’s exposed to air pollution at school and who’s not. And so really looking at this from a, a level that’s broken down by what color your skin is, it’s a huge problem.

[00:03:44] Johanna: And New York as a state is one of the worst – or maybe the worst state – in the country, uh, when it comes to the number of schools that are situated within that 500 foot zone of a highway. So even within the country, we’re one of the worst states. And then within our state, uh, there are certain populations, particularly Black kids, who are really receiving the brunt of this bad planning.

[00:04:08] Lanessa: Which makes sense because New York is also one of the states to have the highest segregated school populations in our country.

[00:04:17] Simon: And so the, yeah, and so the schools that are segregated are — also, the schools that are majority Black — are, are much more likely to be near sources of, of, of highway pollution. Is that, is that right?

[00:04:30] Lanessa: That’s correct.

[00:04:31] Simon: Okay.

[00:04:31] Johanna: Yeah, they’re more likely to be near the highway and they’re also less likely to have the kind of, um, high quality building techniques and technology that could mitigate against that. So it’s like a double whammy.

[00:04:43] They put—you know, kids from Black neighborhoods and low income neighborhoods are going to some of the oldest schools. Um, the oldest school buildings in New York City—we have schools in the Bronx that are a hundred years old, uh, and there’s just no mitigation whatsoever of what air is coming in and out of that building.

[00:04:59] Simon: So given that, you’ve laid out the problem, it’s, it’s clearly an environmental justice problem, as you said, Lanessa. The NYCLU is actually working on ending this problem. Um, towards the end of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed the SIGH Act, um, which is a bill designed to curtail, curtail this issue of, of highway pollution near schools.

[00:05:22] I’ll start with you, Lanessa. What, what does that acronym stand for and, and what would this bill do?

[00:05:29] Lanessa: Yeah, so I mean the acronym is actually a really, I think, a fantastic story of a place where the NYCLU is working really closely with, um, impacted frontline communities to think about strategically how we can start addressing this problem. I think through our advocacy and like campaign and, you know, kind of canvassing and grassroots efforts, we worked really closely with a community that was impacted by a major highway, um, Interstate I-81.

[00:05:55] And at one of the parent meetings, a parent had kind of just nonchalantly said like, why is it this hard for us to convince folks that our kids deserve clean air? And so that kind of led us to start doing some research to see what other states were doing. And we realized at least 23 other states are doing something around regulating how children are exposed to toxins, um, specifically air pollution.

[00:06:17] And so we started thinking about, well, we should draft some legislation here in New York, ’cause at, at this moment there are currently no requirements or regulations of where you can build a school, um, as far as the built environment.

[00:06:29] So we worked really closely with community members and we thought, well, what should we call this bill? What should we call this legislation? And one of our student groups was like, Schools Impacted by Gross Highways. Um, and so that’s where we came with the SIGH Act and that’s the acronym it stands for. And I think it really helps to empower people to say, you can make a change. Well, this bill is the first of its kind in, in New York state, and, and what it will do is it will stop school districts from building schools within 500 feet of a major roadway.

[00:06:58] Simon: Can you lay out why the 500 feet, why sort of the specifics around the bill are, are the way they are?

[00:07:04] Johanna: Yeah. So 500 feet comes from actually EPA guidelines that they have done the science on that, and 500 feet is the amount of space it takes for those most harmful emissions to dissipate. There are other ways to mitigate that. As I mentioned before, you can use technology in a building. You can have, um, high quality air filtration and a sealed building, um, which newer buildings would have, but older buildings just don’t have that, or they don’t pay for the high end filter.

[00:07:36] And also you can mitigate that with vegetation. The EPA has pretty good guidelines about what type of trees and other plants that schools can plant around the building in order to try to absorb some of that pollution. But in an urban environment, those options are just not used as often. So what we wanna do is stop new schools being built within that danger zone as identified by the EPA so that we can make sure the state is putting its resources to the schools that are already there, and making sure that it is then retroactively mitigating the air quality in those schools.

[00:08:09] Simon: And so, and you’re getting into this Johanna, but it seems like the bill that passed is kind of a first step, right? To deal with future schools being built no more than 500 feet from a highway. But as you’re talking about, there are other steps, these mitigation steps that you’re talking about, and what else is there that we’re gonna be pushing for in the future to deal with this issue?

[00:08:30] Johanna: Yeah, I mean, ultimately we would like the Department of Transportation to have the same restrictions. So not only can you not build a school near a highway, but you also can’t build a highway near a school, near an existing school. Um, and that will be a really important future protection that we’re gonna seek.

[00:08:47] Simon: And Lanessa, how are you feeling about the prospects of, of this first bill being signed by Governor Hochul? That’s, that’s the next step. It does still need to be signed by the governor before it becomes law. What, what’s your sort of message to the governor, and, and what’s your sense of, of whether this bill will be signed?

[00:09:06] Lanessa: I mean, I’m, I’m always hopeful that the governor will, um, stay committed to environmental justice and ending past racist practices that led to this. And so that’s something she has often talked about, um, and so we’re here to hold her accountable to that, but also, you know, make sure that we’re aligned in our vision of what we want an equitable New York to look like.

[00:09:27] But it’s a very important first step, right? So the first step is like, we have to stop the behavior. We kind of have to alert school districts that this is harmful. Um, there may be school districts that haven’t really given this a second thought and don’t understand the impacts of air pollution on children. And so the first step in the SIGH Act is one, a stop to the behavior.

[00:09:45] The second step would be, how are we going to remedy and mitigate the schools that are already in this kind of 500 to 600 feet area of major roadways? Like how do we get those schools, like Johanna said, to have the technology to give them good, clean, quality air?

[00:09:59] And then the third step is our thinking about other toxic areas, um, that schools may be placed in. So, I mean, my message to the governor is that this is the first step that New York could take to start protecting children from environmental racism. And I think it’s really as simple as that. And it’s not by any means the last step ’cause there’s so much more that needs to be done.

[00:10:18] But it’s, it’s a good first step in the right direction.

[00:10:22] Simon: Yeah. To that point, um, Lanessa, what’s the timing on taking those further steps?

[00:10:28] Lanessa: Well, the timing is always tricky because it took us almost three years of advocating for this bill to pass. Um, and that came with a lot of community support. We had over 20 environmental justice, environmental law, um, racial justice organizations sign on to this bill and help support and push this bill forward.

[00:10:47] Um, so I think we’re gonna have to really have a strong campaign to get people to start thinking differently about environmental racism and how to address those issues. So the timing is questionable, but it is something that we’re actively working on.

[00:11:00] Simon: Got it. And I’m curious actually for both of you to take this question, but I’m curious why you think it is that – ’cause I think it is true that people don’t necessarily think of highway pollution when they think about education quality and people’s health – why do you think that is not more why widely known or understood?

[00:11:22] Johanna: I think it’s a really interesting question, Simon. Um, one of the reasons I think is because so much of our nation, and even the state of New York – which has a lot of big cities, but so much of it is, is suburban. So many of our school districts in New York, out of, there’s something like 700 school districts in New York, the vast majority of those are suburban school districts. And so when people picture a school in the abstract, they’re not picturing an urban environment. They’re not picturing an urban school. But we also have the largest school district in the country. We have five major urban school distrcits in New York, and in those districts, schools look a lot different than they do in the suburbs.

[00:12:01] In fact, here in New York City, we have schools that are literally straddling major highways. So in the Bronx we have schools that are built over a highway. Um, and so when the students are outside playing sports or whatever, they’re literally over that polluting source. And it’s just not what people picture when they think about a school, a school yard.

[00:12:21] You know, so often we have that like suburban picture in our mind. But in general, all these types of environmental toxins are concentrated in Black neighborhoods. And so the true answer is racism. I mean, you’re gonna be blind to that because of societal racism. Those things are put over there. Environmental hazards, toxins are put in Black neighborhoods so that white people specifically don’t have to think about them.

[00:12:46] And it’s very effective. It’s been very effective, out of sight, out of mind, uh, making sure that those pollutants are concentrated only in Black neighborhoods, to the point that people don’t even realize they exist. So a really important piece of this legislation at actually passing it this year was effectively telling that story to New Yorkers.

[00:13:05] And there is not a single person when they hear our statistics about how many schools are near major highways, that doesn’t immediately, on just a gut level understand why that’s problematic. Nobody wants their child to go to school next to a highway, but most people don’t think of it until you force them to.

[00:13:21] Lanessa: I obviously 100% echo what Johanna said, and, um, will add that it’s, it’s an invisible threat and so you can’t see air pollution. And so you’re living your daily life, you’re going to school, you’re living in toxic environments, and oftentimes you’re just not aware of it.

[00:13:36] Um, during our community meetings and advocacy inside of frontline communities, we would simply ask, how many folks in here have asthma or have some type of respiratory issue, right? And the hands would just go up and it’s kind of, it’s become a part of their everyday life. It’s something that they’re accustomed to and not knowing that there’s another option.

[00:13:56] You don’t have to have a major highway next to your school, right? We could actually do something about this. And so a lot of it is offering up those solutions and also just first, and letting people know that sitting next to a highway isn’t a good place to be. Um, because it’s not always obvious because there’s not a black fog or there’s not a black smoke that’s coming into your house.

[00:14:16] It’s kind of just the air you breathe every day. And so overcoming the things that we can’t visibly see has been a hurdle as well.

[00:14:24] Johanna: You know, on that point, I, it also reminded me, like, as a culture, we are so car centric, that cars almost—you don’t even think about the damage that they cause. I think that that is beginning to change. Um, and I think trying to do this bill 10 or 20 years ago would’ve been a harder uphill battle. But I think today people are starting to reexamine, like how we rely on cars and what that means for the environment, that they’re sort of able to meet us halfway on that.

[00:14:54] So I think we’re telling a part of the story that is logical and makes sense. Maybe they’re just not there yet. But it really is a story about cars and the built environment and how we live with cars and take for granted the damage that they do to our environment.

[00:15:08] Simon: And kind of to that, to that point, Lanessa, when you’re talking to lawmakers about this, what is their reaction? What is their sort of, like, processing when you come to them with this?

[00:15:19] Lanessa: I think for the most part it’s, when I’m talking to lawmakers, it’s really on an educational level. It’s to that point of teaching them or demonstrating for them why this is a problem. And not only why is it a problem for just your basic health concerns, but why it’s a racial justice problem. Like why is this tied to racism, and how is it tied to racism?

[00:15:38] But I, I do just wanna acknowledge that there are environmental justice groups that have been working since at least 1970, right, ringing the alarm about air pollution in Black and Brown communities, and just have been going solely ignored. And I think to Johanna’s earlier point, like absent having been in these times where racial justice and environmental justice are kind of buzzwords at the forefront, this kind of bill would probably sank at the very edge of it, right?

[00:16:05] Because again, If we’re talking about removing those toxins from Black and Brown communities, then where, where are we going to put them? Right? Where’s the equity? And no one wants to have highways in their backyard. No one wants their kids to be overexposed to air pollution, which is understandable. Um, and that’s why we talk about the technology that we have now that can kind of cure that problem without having to redistribute the pollution.

[00:16:28] But we do need to have at some point, a larger conversation about how we’re making sure that everyone is having their fair share of the pollution that we’re all admitting, um, into this world, and it’s not being concentrated in low income and communities of color.

[00:16:42] Johanna: Yeah, I think that the most interesting thing for me in talking to lawmakers has been, once they realize that this is EPA guidance that has existed since, I think, Lanessa, since the 1990s, is that right?

[00:16:55] Lanessa: Mm-hmm.

[00:16:55] Johanna: Yeah. So this is 30 year old EPA guidance from the federal government, based on research. Most other states have limitations on where you can build a school because of this EPA guidance.

[00:17:07] The lawmakers, that’s when they, you really get their attention, because nobody wants to be last. And especially in New York, we do not like to think of our state as being behind Mississippi, for example, which on this issue, we are. We lag Mississippi on this issue. So when you think about how—that other states have taken this, the lawmakers kind of go like, what, why didn’t we, like, how are we so far behind?

[00:17:28] And that is a real good question. I mean, it’s something that we’ve grappled with too, like how New York could be so far behind on this.

[00:17:35] Simon: And, um, with that, is there anything else that, that you think lawmakers, that you think, um, folks listening to this, our supporters, should know on, on this issue?

[00:17:46] Lanessa: What I’ll take a second to talk about is that we do have some carved out exceptions in the SIGH Act, and that’s obviously because we understand that cities like New York City are really dense and don’t have a lot of free land to just build schools, um, in the most pristine, environmentally, um, safe conditions.

[00:18:03] And so there are some carve-out exceptions that I just wanna acknowledge on this call, that really go to the heart of, like, if a school district needs to build another school, and they can demonstrate that there’s no other location at all for them to build this school, they are allowed to do that. But the idea is because now we’re thinking about it, those technology, that mitigation requirement will kick in, and then they can make sure the school is safe from the inside out.

[00:18:27] Johanna: Yeah. Simon, I just wanna add as well that there’s a real cycle of school funding, academic performance, and student health that’s all tied into this, that I think is maybe not obvious to people. But there’s actually been some really great research that has shown that students do worse on their schoolwork and on tests when they go to a school that’s close to a pollution source, including a highway.

[00:18:52] And when we look at schools in New York, in fact, this school that kind of inspired this work is a school called Martin Luther King School in Syracuse, an elementary school that is a new beautiful building, maybe 20 feet, maybe less, from a major roadway. And that school with funding new programs like, you know, cutting edge technology, um, in the classrooms, you know, getting great teachers in there is a quote unquote failing school.

[00:19:20] And that is a measure of how well the students do academically. But nobody wants to talk about how, if you have asthma, how that affects your absentee rate, for example. How many days of school you’re missing due to asthma and how when you have a concentrated population of students with respiratory illness, that becomes on a massive scale.

[00:19:41] So to say that that school is failing is such a misdirection of what’s really happening. What’s really happening is we have asked these young elementary age students to go to school in an environmentally unsafe area, and then when they don’t do well in this one measure that we’ve decided, we say they’re failing. And that failing grade can result in the school having less funding.

[00:20:02] So it’s a cycle that the students and the families have literally no control over. And I think that’s a piece of the story that people don’t really understand. Like, it’s not just a vague threat to your health by sucking in car pollution all day. It’s like a very concrete, real thing, and particularly for young kids, um, whose lungs are still developing, it has a major impact on their brain, on their academic development, and that in turn will have an impact on the literal quality of their school because that’s how our society decides how to fund and support schools. So it’s, it’s a crazy cycle.

[00:20:36] Lanessa: The only thing I will add is to Johanna’s fantastic point is that the damage is permanent, right? And so this isn’t something that you move away, you grow out of, and you’re back to normal. When you’re going to school near a major roadway, research has shown us that your lung development damage is permanent.

[00:20:56] That means your lungs will never function at 100%, and that can have devastating impacts to your child’s ability to learn. I mean, if you imagine a five-year-old trying to breathe while also trying to take a test, or while also trying to learn in circle time, right? Also trying to memorize that new circle time song, but afraid they’re gonna have an asthma attack, which often gets triggered if you’re in a school next to a major roadway. And if you have asthma, it becomes even more detrimental because obviously some of those kids who go to school near major roadways also live in neighborhoods where major roadways exist. And so they already are coming in at a disadvantage. And so the school should be their safe place.

[00:21:38] That should be a place where they’re getting good quality air, they’re not drinking lead water, they’re kind of just existing in a safe school where they can learn and put their best foot forward. And we’re just not seeing that happen in most communities, um, near major highways, who are Black and Brown.

[00:21:53] Simon: Just finally, um, and this is for both of you, what can people listening who want to, um, support this legislation and, and this fight to end highway pollution near schools, what can they do?

[00:22:06] Johanna: Call the governor, tweet at her, send her an email, um, tell her you support this. We, we like Lanessa said, we’re really hopeful that the governor will sign this bill, and that’ll be happening later this fall. Every conversation we have with any lawmaker, they go, how could we not support this, right? So on a gut level, it’s so obvious.

[00:22:28] Um, but we wanna make sure she’s making that decision in a way that’s accountable to the public and not behind the scenes where you can sort of privatelysay, well, in public, this is appalling, but in private, I have a lot of other factors that I’m considering and I’m, I’m gonna veto it for some reason. We don’t think that she will veto it, but she needs to hear from New Yorkers that that’s unacceptable and that we have to move forward on this issue.

[00:22:49] Lanessa: You know, and, and to that point, um, I don’t want to seem like this is going to be, uh, a walk in the park. Because what we’re asking school districts to do is do something different. We’re asking them to do something that they haven’t had to do before. And we know that a lot of times people struggle with change.

[00:23:06] And so now we’re asking ’em to make a new evaluation, to go through a new process when determining where their school is. And there’s a lot of, um, resistance in certain districts that are saying we wanna do things how we have always done them. And so it’s important for New Yorkers to call the governor and say, this is important to us because regardless of the red tape that districts now have to go through to make sure they’re putting their schools in a better location for their students, it’s what’s best for the students. And so really trying to grapple with the opposition of, well, we’ve always done it this way and we wanna continue to do it this way.

[00:23:38] Well, the way we’ve been doing it has been harmful, and so we need to change. Um, and once we realized that our actions are harmful, we are now responsible for, um, correcting those actions. And so this is something that really needs to be pressed upon the governor’s office because there is opposition out there.

[00:23:52] There are folks out there saying that this is, this is not a good bill and it’s gonna cause a delay in, in, in the construction of new schools, which we don’t necessarily think is a bad thing. A delay in construction to meaningfully think about where you’re going to place a school to ensure the kids are safe is not a bad thing.

[00:24:08] And so this is something that we’ve been working on internally and externally, having private meetings, um, with those, uh, districts or with those entities that are, are kind of challenging this new idea. So it’s really important for New Yorkers to call their local legislators and also urge their governor to pass this bill.

[00:24:27] Simon: And with that, Lanessa, Johanna, thank you so much for being on Rights This Way.

[00:24:33] Lanessa: Thank you, Simon.

[00:24:36] Simon: Thank you for listening. You can find out more about everything we talked about today by visiting, and you can follow us @nyclu on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. If you have questions or comments about Rights This Way, you can email us at Until next time, I’m Simon McCormack.

[00:24:58] Thank you for fighting for a Fair New York.