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Petrochemical Ban?

A school board and a petrochemical group have valid concerns, but both need a time-out

February 2, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 5

It's hard to imagine school life without petrochemical products such as plastics.
It's hard to imagine school life without petrochemical products such as plastics.

While I was trolling the Internet for news about the chemical industry recently, one item from an unlikely source, the weekly Great Neck Record, caught my attention. The school board in that Long Island, N.Y., town had proposed a policy to "exclude, wherever possible" the use of petrochemical products in school buildings. A petrochemical, according to the school board, is any "product derived and manufactured from crude oil." The policy would affect cleaners, art supplies, paint, laboratory products, and such, the article stated.

Moreover, the story said the board will look for third-party certification of products for their environmental efficacy and impact on indoor air quality.

Wisely, the school board seemed to put limits on how far the exercise would go, but I couldn't help imagining a quixotic effort to totally eliminate petrochemical products from schools. I pictured that nylon, polyester, acrylic, and spandex fibers would be purged entirely from children's wardrobes. A music teacher would have to forgo playing recorded music, because polycarbonate compact discs, polyester magnetic tape, and even vinyl records would be abolished. And football players would bash their heads, Gerald Ford style, without their polycarbonate helmets.

The new policy is the brainchild of David Kincaid, the school safety officer for the Great Neck Public School's Board of Education. I tracked him down, and he told me that the policy's focus is on products that "off-gas." He has already stopped the use of "petrochemical-based" cleaners at five schools in Great Neck. "And the reason, of course, is that petrochemical products off-gas. They are volatile--all of them--and volatiles are destructive to kids with asthma and kids with allergies," he said. "And we are looking to get rid of them."

Kincaid's biggest concern is with cleaning products, which he said children are exposed to the most. He is also checking the material safety data sheets for art supplies and will try to use water-based architectural coatings. "If you look at the MSDS sheets for almost all of these things, you'll find there are exposure limits to all of them," he said. "Any time there are exposure limits, you don't have to be very smart to know that it is not good for you." And, he noted, children, with their developing respiratory systems, are more susceptible than adults.

Kincaid reassured me that he would keep the focus on cleaners, art supplies, and paints. He pointed out that other school districts in Long Island are scrutinizing the products they use, but that his district was further along than any of them, and he would "keep on pressing."

He also mentioned that he had been contacted by Rick Brown, business manager and petrochemical director of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, who, Kincaid reckoned, "has a job in the industry that he has to do and was looking to modify the policy."

I called Brown, who said he understands where Kincaid is coming from. "I'm not particularly upset with the intent," he said. "If you are in a closed situation and you want to use non-VOC products, I don't see anything wrong with that." But, he noted, the wording of the document--particularly "wherever possible"--opens the door to broader bans of petrochemical products. "If they were to follow through on this policy, it could as much as close the school district down," he said. "They don't understand what they are doing."

Moreover, Brown worries that an enterprising lawyer could get ahold of the policy, point first to some petrochemical product still used and then to a kid with asthma, and sue the district for violating its policy.

Brown suggested changing "exclude" in the policy to "minimize the use of" and suggested adding "where there are reasonably priced alternatives available." Kincaid said the board might consider changes to the draft.

Brown said he wanted to address the school board at a reading of the policy last month, but his letter to the board didn't arrive in time for him to get on the schedule. However, the board will allow Brown to speak at the final reading of the measure.

A visit by Brown might turn this exchange into a rare moment of understanding between industry and environmentalism. However, any compromise shouldn't gloss over the communication problem that the incident exemplifies.

Trying to ensure the safety of a population that runs with scissors and eats glue is no doubt an overwhelming and thankless task. I can understand that a person like Kincaid would want to exercise caution when the safety of a material is suspect. And it isn't hard to see that his instinct was to entrench himself rather than give an inch when a Washington lobbying group showed a sudden interest in Great Neck School Board meetings.

However, the distinctions that Brown is striving for are not semantical nonsense meant to undermine Kincaid's efforts; they aim to stop the school board from adopting a policy that is impracticable.

At the same time, perhaps the chemical industry's efforts are misdirected in this case. As a look around Wal-Mart or any home or office will reveal, there is little sign of a cultural revolution that would revert society back to the pre-Bakelite era.

The industry needs to work harder to understand why the public has become fertile ground in which problems like those in Great Neck can sprout. If policymakers in suburbia can pigeonhole all petrochemicals as bad for health, then surely the public lacks a rudimentary understanding of chemistry in our daily lives.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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