Pensacola schools being tested for toxic waste, radium

Oct 17, 2003

PENSACOLA, Fla. The grounds of one Pensacola school are being tested for pollution from two nearby toxic waste sites while drinking water at six other schools is being analyzed for radium.

A student's history project this week prompted a detailed investigation of possible harmful toxins at Brown-Barge Middle School, across the street from a former fertilizer plant and less than a mile from an abandoned wood treating site dubbed "Mount Dioxin."

Student Rachel Rowan's research into the history of the toxic waste sites alarmed her mother, Robin Rowan, who discovered the school had been declared safe although testing in 1996 showed levels of benzo(a)pyrene nine times higher than allowed by federal regulations.

Short-term exposure to the chemical can damage red blood cells, leading to anemia and a suppressed immune system, while long-term it has been linked to cancer and developmental and reproductive defects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

With help from U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, and a local environmental group, Citizens Against Toxic Exposure, Robin Rowan persuaded the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to take another look.

DEP personnel returned to the school this week to begin comprehensive testing for benzo(a)pyrene and other toxins including pesticides, dioxin and radium. The results are expected by mid-January.

The Escambia County School District is testing for radium in the drinking water at six schools served by an Escambia County Utilities Authority well where high levels of the toxin have been found in the past.

Tests at one school have been completed and show a safe radium level. Testing at the other schools will begin within days.

Water provided by the utilities authority had unsafe levels of radium 226 and 228 detected in 1996 but not removed until 2000 as officials downplayed its significance, the Pensacola News Journal reported last month. A toxic plume from the fertilizer plant is suspected as the radium's source but the link has not been proven.

The EPA plans to review state regulators handling of the radium issue, and a grand jury will be asked to investigate the radium and toxic plume for possible violations of law.