Especially for kids with asthma, just getting to school can be hazardous. Fumes from a school bus's diesel exhaust can enter the cabin, exposing kids to as much as four times more pollution than even the driver of a car following the bus.
To alleviate the problem, school districts, with the help of federal grants (and state grants in some cases) have been working to replace the oldest, most polluting buses, and to upgrade others with better pollution control equipment. (The Diesel Reduction Act was reauthorized for five years in December, but it's unclear how much money Congress will appropriate to continue the program.) The way drivers operate the buses can also have a big impact on the air quality for kids. The Daily Green wrote about this issue back in 2007; for an update, and to find out what parents can do to clear the air, we talked to Rich Kassel, director of the Clean Fuels and Vehicles Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Replace old buses
Any bus built before 1998 should be considered a prime candidate for replacement, Kassel said, but the goal should be to have a fleet of buses built since 2007, when a new law went into effect requiring closed crankcases and advanced emissions controls to limit the emissions of soot and other harmful pollutants. On older buses, having drivers close the crankcase reduces pollution inside buses significantly.
"In my experience, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, so if parents demand cleaner, safer buses, they are more likely to get them," Kassel said.
Follow the money
Provided that Congress appropriates money for the Diesel Reduction Act, which provides money for the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean School Bus USA grants, there should be money available to subsidize the expense of bus upgrades for school districts. Some states contribute additional money to make it more affordable for local taxpayers.
"Parents and PTAs should ask their school principals, superintendents, and other officials whether they are taking advantage of any government funding or incentive programs," Kassel said. "These programs can help make investing in cleaner buses an easier lift for cash-strapped school districts."
Idling school buses not only waste fuel but also allows fumes to enter the cabin, and produces pollution that accumulates right where students are queuing up to board. While old buses may have benefited from idling, because they were difficult to re-start, that's no longer an issue with newer buses, Kassel said. Any idling that happens now is a result of drivers' habits or misconceptions. At least 30 school districts and local municipalities in the U.S. have anti-idling rules or laws on the books. In New York City, for instance, bus drivers are told to idle no more than three minutes at any time, and no more than one minute in a school zone. Unfortunately, even good laws aren't always enforced.
"No school bus should idle in school parking lots, period," Kassel said. "There's no excuse for idling so close to school buildings. Parents should ask their schools (or their local police) to post clear 'no idling in school zones' signs, and then to enforce these laws."
Use the school bus
Despite the air quality problems that persist in older buses, the bus is still the most efficient and least-polluting way to get most kids to school.
"It's still better to use public or school-provided transportation," Kassel said. "Even if the bus pollutes, to use it still replaces 40-50 cars, and that means less congestion on our roads, fewer greenhouse gases, and less overall emissions."
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