Remember this the next time your school district wants to raise taxes to buy a new school bus: The bus it replaces may pollute 60 times as much as the new vehicle, and that air pollution can trigger asthma attacks, a leading cause of absenteeism. That's given schools three new R's to focus on: Replacement (of the oldest buses), Renovation (of pollution controls) and Restraint (from idling).
The government has made progress on the problem since 2003. But millions of children will start school this year by climbing on a big yellow bus that spits out two times as much pollution per mile as a tractor-trailer truck. Air quality inside the school buses that carry 24 million students daily can be four times worse than the air in cars traveling alongside them.
One third of all diesel school buses are pre-1990 model year, said Dave Ryan, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman. These buses are the heaviest polluters and should be replaced. Talk to a child who has experienced an asthma attack and nearly 4 million school-age children will suffer an asthma attack this year and it sounds like a nightmarish mix of drowning and claustrophobia. The chest is in a vise, squeezing. It's a struggle just to gulp air. Tempestuous coughing erupts. Now imagine trying to memorize times tables under those circumstances.
The imperative to clean up buses that carry 24 million American children is clear, if the air is not. And neither is the politics. Congress in 2005 approved spending up to $200 million annually for five years on retiring or cleaning up old diesel engines, including school buses. Last year, Congress appropriated just $12 million. This year, Congress is considering an increase to between $50 million and $65 million.
Even that wouldn't reach the level Congress itself set as a goal, and even reaching that goal would not be enough to retire or renovate the old diesel fleet, according to Eli Hopson, who works on the Clean Vehicles Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. While new hybrid technology grabs a lot of the clean vehicle enthusiasm, Hopson said cleaning up old diesel engines is the No. 1 air quality issue, and cleaning up school buses a high-priority children's health issue.
There are 450,000 public school buses on the road, of which probably two thirds need to be upgraded, Hopson said, so while this money will be a start, it's certainly not going to get us there.
For a closer look at the new Three R's, and a breakdown of what has been done, what still needs to be done and why, click here.
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