Report: Vehicle exhaust near schools endangers students, teachers

DENVER -- A report shows air pollution remains a major threat to health in Colorado.

Environment Colorado Research shows that in 2015, the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area ranked sixth in the country for the most days with elevated smog pollution at 176 days.

Another report by the Center for Public Integrity shows traffic pollution poses risks to children. Most of the impacted schools are in Denver, with a couple dozen more in neighboring districts.

It is the brown cloud -- and it makes Kathy Zapata blue.

“We saw this big, dark cloud over the city. It was so polluted, so dirty,” said the mother of three.

She didn’t realize it loomed so close to her children at Swansea Elementary School, a stone’s throw from Interstate 70, where an average 141,000 vehicles travel each day.

The Center for Public Integrity ranks Swansea as the second-most impacted Denver school from vehicle exhaust.

“I think it is a bad thing. I mean, there are a lot of kids that have asthma already,” Zapata said.

Medical professionals say these invisible particulates, like smoking, can increase a person’s risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, and trigger asthma attacks.

Third on the list is STRIVE Prep -- Sunnyside off I-70 and Pecos Street, where an average 131,000 vehicles a day spew exhaust.

And the No. 1 school at most risk is Highline Academy at Interstate 25 and Evans Avenue, where an average 210,000 vehicles pass each day.

“We do take the issue seriously,” Denver Public Schools executive director of facilities Trena Deane said.

But because Denver Public Schools is one of the fastest-growing districts in the nation, it presents new issues.

“It’s tough in that we try to locate schools that have high student growth and in trying to find those locations, we don’t have many options where we can place that building,” Deane said.

So the district tries to reduce the invisible impact. Deane said the district does mitigation work at 26 of the 29 schools in the danger zone. At Swansea, the district will install new windows, doors and air conditioning.

“There’s no need to open the windows. So we have the ability to close off sites more and be safe,” she said.

For Zapata, the improvements help bolster her expectation that school is a safe place -- despite what lingers in the air.