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AIR POLLUTION IN the Community

Activity 6 (Elaborate): Air Toxics in the Community


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Activity Overview

Activity Summary

In this optional activity, students learn about toxic air pollution, which can cause more acute health effects such as cancer. They do this by watching two videos showing real world examples of how air toxics have affected a community, and comparing the two situations. They also learn about how communities can advocate for themselves when air quality issues arise.

A Note about Activities 6 & 7: These optional activities explore two topics that are relevant to students in particular communities. Activity 6 explores hazardous chemical pollutants, and Activity 7 explores local pollution sources. If your school community is located in a place where pollutants - especially toxic pollutants - may be a concern, it is highly recommended that you take the time to do these activities with students.

Activity Objectives & Materials

Approximate Time: 45 minutes​


  • Students will learn how scientists identify sources of toxic chemicals in the community

  • Students will understand the difference between the criteria pollutants and toxic chemical pollutants



  • Computer & projector

  • Speakers (for video)


  • Air Toxics in the Community

  • Air Toxics and Criteria Pollutants

Standards Connection

DCI: ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems



What does this symbol mean and where have you seen it before?

  • Poison, danger, toxic (make sure students all know the word “toxic”)

  • On chemical bottles, on cleaning products, at a factory, etc.

Hazard symbol.png

1. Frame the Activity

Tell students that particulate matter from combustion vehicles isn’t the only kind of air pollution that can be dangerous to a community. Today they are going to learn about two real world situations in which toxic chemicals affected a community, and what community members did to advocate for themselves when they found out there was a problem with air pollution.

Vocabulary: Air Toxics, toxic air pollutants, and hazardous air pollutants are all names for the same type of pollution.

Step 1

2. Air Pollution in Portland, Oregon

Hand out the “Air Toxics in the Community” sheet for students to use to take notes on the videos. Have them take a moment to review the information they’ll be collecting from the video. When they are ready, show the video: “How moss revealed an undetected air pollution threat in Portland.

After the video, lead a brief discussion on what they learned about the air pollution problem in Portland, and what the community did about it.

  • What are the toxic chemicals? heavy toxic metals (Cadmium, Arsenic)

  • Where did they came from? Artisan glass manufacturing companies

  • What were the health effects? Kidney damage, lung cancer

  • Who first identified the pollution problem? US Forest service scientists (Sarah Jovan)

  • How did they discover the pollution? moss had filtered pollution out of the air

  • How did scientists studied the problem? analyzed moss samples from across the city

  • How did the government follow up? set up air quality monitors

  • How did the community respond (what did they do?): ask the state to setup air monitors, meet together, hold rallies/make signs

3. Air Pollution in Addyston, Ohio

Tell students that they are about to watch another video of a community affected by air pollution. After this video, they will compare and contrast the two scenarios, so they should keep an eye out for similarities and differences as they watch. Show the video: “The Smokestack Effect: Part 1.

After the video, lead a brief discussion on what they learned about the air pollution problem in Addyston, and what the community did about it.

  • What are the toxic chemicals? They are not specifically named

  • Where did they come from? a local plastics factory

  • Health effects of the pollution: cancer

  • Who first identified the pollution problem? reporters from USA Today

  • How did they discover the problem? matching EPA data with school locations using a model

  • How did scientists study the pollution? set up air quality monitors

  • How did the government follow up? they issued orders to the company to change

  • How did the community respond (what did they do?): they closed the school

Additional Media: The Smokestack Effect Part 2 provides some additional information about local air quality testing and what individuals can do if they are concerned about air pollution and its effects on children.

Extension:  If students are interested in learning more about what chemicals count as air toxics, you can show them this list of the 187 hazardous air pollutants from the EPAWhile most of these chemicals will be unfamiliar to students, they will probably recognize things like chlorine, cyanide, and mercury

Step 4

4. Sensemaking

Review students’ answers to the questions about the second video, and then give them a chance to answer the compare and contrast questions on the next page. Once they are finished, discuss the similarities and differences between the two scenarios.


Next, ask students how these videos made them feel. Were they concerned for the people in Portland and Addyston? How would they have reacted if they lived near a glass factory or if they went to school near a chemical plant? If students live near a major polluter like this, take the opportunity to help them make a personal connection to the communities in the videos (if you are not sure about major polluters in the area, students can look up that information in the next activity). Be sure to emphasize the actions that each community took to address the problem of air pollution.

Looking ahead:  In the next activity (Who is Polluting in My Neighborhood), students have a chance to look up whether there are air pollution sources in their community. If you plan to do that activity, be sure to have students look at the “Air Toxics” tab to identify if there are any sources of toxic air pollutants in their community. If you don’t plan to do that activity, you may want to look up any sources on your own before this activity so you can share that information with students. If you do, be cautious and tactful – sharing information that there is a source of potentially harmful air pollution in the community is a serious matter and should be introduced thoughtfully.

5. Air Toxics vs. Criteria Pollutants

Hand out the reading “Air Toxics and Criteria Pollutants.” Give students time to complete the reading and fill in the Venn diagram. When they are done, discuss the differences to ensure student understanding.

6. Formative Assessment

Have students answer the “What would YOU do?” questions at the bottom of the Air Toxics in the Community sheet. It is worth taking the time to review students’ answers to these questions, as this topic will come back near the end of the module. It is also important for students to recognize that individual citizens have the power to improve the environmental quality of their communities if they have the right knowledge.

  • Who would you talk to? Parents, teachers, your doctor, government agency (ex. Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), DC Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE), or Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VA DEQ))

  • What would you ask them to do? Set up air quality monitors in the community or near the suspected source; check to see if you or other people in the community have health problems that might be connected to the pollution

  • What could your community do? Talk to government officials and ask for an investigation; talk to reporters about the problem; hold protests or rallies about the pollution; have community meetings to teach others about the problem

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