In December 2008 USA Today launched a special report on Toxic Air and America's Schools, prepared by journalist Blake Morrison and Brad Heath, who went on to win the big Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment. Morrison recently described the project at the Metcalf Institute's science seminar for journalists , and included a few TreeHuggers. It is an extraordinary story.
When it came right down to it, nobody really wanted the public to know about the air quality around schools. The EPA had the data in their Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) screening tool but didn't want it used for "risk assessment." But Morrison had the data from a school that the EPA closed in 2005, and was able to use that as a standard for comparison; there is even an interactive map that shows every school that has worse air quality than the school that was shut down. There are a lot of them.
Working with University of Massachusetts-Amherst's Political Economy Research Institute, they overlayed the EPA data at each of the country's 127,800 schools. The states and the school boards were furious; parents started complaining, and the states had to say that the polluters were operating "within their licenced parameters", which shocked a lot of people.
They then went beyond modelling, and then worked with Johns Hopkins University to go out and actually monitor the air at 95 schools in 30 states.
Being over two years old, not every link still works and the mapping doesn't have the latest google API, but it still is worth trying out here.
Not too many papers are doing this kind of expensive investigative journalism anymore. This is the kind of thing that will be missed.