4 Things Schools Can Do to Reduce the Asthma Threat From Idling Cars

Lately, American schools have been pretty responsive to public health and safety threats facing children. Witness the rise of peanut butter bans or the dwindling number of vending machines in schools.

Idling near schools can trigger asthma attacks -- a leading cause of childhood mortality. So why is it considered so acceptable? Photo: IdleFreeVermont
Idling near schools can trigger asthma attacks — a leading cause of childhood mortality. So why do so many parents do it? Photo: IdleFreeVermont

But schools haven’t been very successful at tackling what is arguably a much bigger threat to children’s health: air pollution caused by driving. Asthma is the most common chronic disease among children. Car exhaust can trigger attacks and may cause asthma itself, and schools are where children tend to be especially exposed. In school zones, levels of air pollutants “may significantly exceed community background levels, particularly in the presence of idling school buses,” according to researchers with the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Every morning and afternoon at schools around the country, pick-up and drop-off times are free-for-alls of mindless idling, with tailpipes spitting poisonous chemicals into the air children breathe. “Monitoring at schools has shown elevated levels of benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and other air toxics during the afternoon hour coinciding with parents picking up their children,” according to the U.S. EPA.

“One major issue with air pollution is that it is invisible,” says Anneka Whisker of the group Moms for Clean Air. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are four things schools can do to help reduce pollution from idling and asthma.

1. Encourage active transportation

To reduce air pollution at school, make walking and biking as safe and practical as possible.

According to the U.S. EPA [PDF], school strategies aimed at boosting active transportation can have a real impact. Traffic volumes near Roosevelt Middle School in Eugene, Oregon, for instance, dropped 24 percent after the addition of walking and biking paths, the agency reports.

The EPA also has guidelines for school siting [PDF]. It recommends choosing a site that many students can walk to and that provides good active transportation opportunities, not a far-away site that would require longer bus rides or drives.

2. Establish anti-idling zones near schools

Encouraging parents to shut off the engine can help make schools healthier places. The EPA provides an “idle-free toolkit,” complete with signs, brochures and parent pledges, to schools interested in improving air quality.

Reducing idling around schools can have a big effect. Researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found idle-free zones could reduce carbon pollution by 63 percent and particulate pollution by 74 percent.

Although the EPA encourages idle-free school zones, it’s not clear how many schools participate in its initiative. In West Virginia, for instance, the state EPA reports that just 12 schools have “idle-free zones.”

3. Don’t let school buses idle unnecessarily

In total, 17 states have rules that limit idling for school buses or other vehicles in school zones, according to Scientific American. California, which has prohibited school bus idling since 2003, is a leader in this respect. But across the nation, these rules are poorly enforced.

The Ohio EPA recommends school district policy should limit idling by buses to less than five minutes, even in cold weather, except in a few circumstances. Bus drivers should be notified of the policy by letter, and it should be enforced by penalizing drivers who break the rules.

“Bus routes should be timed so children and drivers do not need to spend a lot of extra time on the bus when it is not en route, particularly in hot or cold weather. In addition, auxiliary heaters can be purchased and installed to keep the cabin comfortable,” the agency recommends.

4. Retrofit school bus engines for cleaner operation

About 25 million American school children ride the bus to school every day. But diesel engines are enormous polluters. Worse, in school buses a lot of the pollution gets trapped inside. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, studies have found that fine particle pollution inside school buses can be five to six times higher than ambient air levels.

The federal government and many states offer grants to retrofit school bus engines to dramatically reduce emissions. Some schools have also reduced the replacement timeline for buses in order to convert to a newer, cleaner-running fleet, the EPA reports.

  • calwatch

    Interestingly, Reason Foundation is citing school choice and the charter school movement as a way to make cities more environmentally friendly – by decoupling school attendance from location, thus shortening commute times and reducing traffic. http://reason.com/reasontv/2015/11/10/clean-the-environment-and-lower-your-com

  • AndreL

    That is the other side of the phenomenon, it operates more that way at the pre-K and elementary level where schools can be small and still have the necessary scale to serve all students (a high school needs a larger population to have certain option programs, AP courses, sports at a minimum enrollment level).

  • Andrew

    Could you please be my neighbor? I wish I had the guts to do that.

  • neroden

    “Bad schools” include:
    (1) schools where the students are all suffering from lead poisoning (a really big problem until leaded gasoline was totally eliminated, and still a big problem) — in this case it’s the students who have the problem, not the schools;
    (2) schools with no money — in this case, it’s the property tax funding of the schools which is the problem;
    (3) schools which are actually good and are called “bad” because of bigotry and racism;
    (4) schools which are actually bad due to horrifying administrator incompetence but are never referred to as such because they are in elite communities (I went to these)…

  • jarendt

    Where I live there’s “choice”, but the school bus will only drive kids to the “neighborhood” school. Families with the resources to drive their kids to school have a choice, but the poorest families, too poor to drive, living in the neighborhoods of the worst schools, don’t have a choice. The devil is in the details with “choice”.

  • calwatch

    So because some parents can’t decide correctly, let’s screw everyone else and take away their choice (unless they spend thousands and move). That works well.

  • jaarendt

    “Can’t decide correctly.” I have no idea what you mean here.

    The families living in the housing projects in my city don’t get to decide where they live and oftne don’t have the resources to send their kids outside the neighborhood for school. School choice helps keep the middle class people who are zoned into the same schools as a projects out of the project schools.

    Also, I never said to take away choice, just that it did not work well in my city (unless the goal is economic and racial segregation) because of the lack of bussing for non-neighborhood schools.

  • Benjamin Williams

    The flip side is that school choice encourages schools to stratify in quality by condensing children of parents who have the luxury of time into a few schools while children of parents who have less time or less knowledge are condemned to schools that are barely more than holding camps for children.

    Study after study has shown that increased school choice just results in further segregation between white schools and minority schools, with the minority schools bearing the brunt of the negative effects. In other words, the social *and* environmental effects of school choice are negative to society as a whole.

  • AndreL

    Is that necessarily true? Some of “choice schools”, especially those who have entrance exams or other academic merit assessment, are split almost evenly between Asian-Americans and Caucasian-Americans (such as the selective schools in New York, the world-famous Thomas Jefferson High in Fairfax county, selective schools in Dallas etc).

    I’m all against racial segregation, I think the right way to counter that is to build bigger schools, abolishing the notion of catchment areas (as least in their current form) altogether. High schools in cities with enough student population should cater to 5, 7 maybe 10 thousand students each, like a college.

  • calwatch

    No, it just stratifies upper middle class and wealthier parents into the parochial or the private school system, thus eliminating whatever diversity currently exists (even if it is less than what one would like). In places like New Orleans, most Caucasian children are in the parochial school system, and eliminating school choice would now send even more children there. Fortunately, the middle class vote, and they revolt when choice is taken away, so anti-choice advocates like yourself are pushing uphill.

  • Passyunk

    Many truck stops have been retrofitted to now be equipped with electric vehicle spaces so that trucks can plug-in to the electric grid at night to keep the cabin running (air condition, heat, TV, WiFi). Why don’t they do the same with buses instead of letting them idle in front of the school? It would make things less chaotic and polluted.

  • JamesSCKemp35

    Creative piece . Just to add my thoughts , if your company is searching for a One day marriage designation maryland form , I came across a sample version here http://goo.gl/Q8MOQz

  • Miles Bader

    It’s a little hard to judge the scale on that map, but based on my guess from the street sizes, it looks like reasonable walk for the nearer houses, and a reasonable bike-ride for the farthest houses…

    [This is for high-school students… of course an elementary school should be closer.]

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