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In heart of Louisiana’s chemical corridor, elementary students learn about ‘green chemistry’

ECOS President Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks instructs Fifth Ward Elementary School students as they make their own room sprays to take home during a workshop on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
ECOS President Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks instructs Fifth Ward Elementary School students as they make their own room sprays to take home during a workshop on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.

Sprigs of lavender and mint decorated the cafeteria tables in Fifth Ward Elementary School on Tuesday morning as part of a “green chemistry” experiment that stood in stark contrast to the work going on at petrochemical plants surrounding the school.

Instead of lunch trays, students at the St. John the Baptist Parish school grabbed tinctures, spray bottles and small containers of goo. They combined essential oils with water and an emulsifier to create their own room sprays.

The combined, powerful smells of several essential oils — from peppermint and lavender to grapefruit and lemon — permeated the room. At one table, Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, who was helping lead the experiment, encouraged a group of third and fourth graders as they dropped the essences of their choice in little spray bottles.

“Smell it and see if you like it,” she said. “You guys are wonderful green chemists.”

Within an hour, they each had their own unique room spray. Vlahakis-Hanks is the president of a plant-based cleaning product company called ECOS– hence the air freshener. Her company plans to host more events at other Louisiana schools as a way to encourage students to pursue environmentally sustainable careers.

“I want children to dream of being green chemists, green chemical engineers,” Vlahakis-Hanks said. “There are renewable, replenishable, nontoxic, safe things that we can be creating and making.”

Located in the heart of Louisiana’s petrochemical manufacturing hub, which is sometimes referred to as Cancer Alley, Fifth Ward Elementary has a chemical plant for a next-door neighbor. Vlahakis-Hanks said she hoped the event would expose the kids to other opportunities in chemistry and engineering, ones where “planetary health” is prioritized.

“I want the young people around here to grow up and to think differently,” she added.

The event was held in partnership with the Healthy Living Foundation and a local environmental group, the Concerned Citizens of St. John. The elementary school has been at the center of a dispute over the nearby chemical plant, Denka Performance Elastomers. The plant has been embroiled in litigation after it was accused by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency of releasing toxic pollution that poses an “imminent and substantial endangerment to public health.”

Members of the Concerned Citizens of St. John have called for reducing emissions for almost a decade. Robert Taylor, who founded the organization, said the event built on that work. He attended the school back when it was a high school and hopes this was just the first environmental education event in the area.

“As much as we're fighting for clean air for them, we're also wanting everyone to understand that this is our Earth and to be aware of it now at a young age,” Robert Taylor said. “It’s so important, and we have to find ways that we can empower them.”

A pair of Fifth Ward Elementary School students shake their spray bottles after dropping essential oils and an emulsifier inside to create their own room fresheners during a workshop with plant-based cleaning product company, ECOS, on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
A pair of Fifth Ward Elementary School students shake their spray bottles after dropping essential oils and an emulsifier inside to create their own room fresheners during a workshop with plant-based cleaning product company, ECOS, on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.

Tish Taylor, the group’s program director, said they eventually want to see a curriculum developed around the environment. Currently, she said the names of familiar oil and gas companies bombard the kids.

“When everything around you – every school bag, every notebook — is donated by the petrochemical industries, they see those names constantly,” she said. “They think they’re the heroes of the parish, and it’s a farce.”

Tish Taylor said working with ECOS was one way to introduce the kids — and adults — to a new name.

“All of these young people are working for a company that's doing wonderful things that we never even knew existed. And all we had to do was mix some stuff up in a spray bottle and take it home,” she said. “Hopefully, they are inspired in all ways.”

A Fifth Ward Elementary School student poses with his new room spray that he crafted during a "green chemistry" workshop led by the plant-based cleaning product company, ECOS, on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
A Fifth Ward Elementary School student poses with his new room spray that he crafted during a "green chemistry" workshop led by the plant-based cleaning product company, ECOS, on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.

The company also donated 32 air filters to the school to help reduce the amount of particulate air pollution — fine particles that can cause health issues — that students are exposed to. But the filters only catch a small portion of pollution known to affect the area and can’t remove cancer-causing chemicals like chloroprene, which has been documented in high levels near the school.

David Steinman, who runs the Healthy Living Foundation, helped coordinate both the donated air filters and the workshop. His group plans to launch more initiatives, including a regional newspaper in the River Parishes, but Steinman said it was important to reach the kids first.

“The time is now to take care of these kids, they don't have a second chance,” he said. “We have to do it now.”

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Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.