Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In
Health

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
Idling near schools can trigger asthma attacks -- a leading cause of childhood mortality. So why is it considered so acceptable? 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.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

The Paris Plan for Olympic Traffic? Build More Bike Lanes

A push to make Paris fully bikable for the Olympics is already paying dividends long before the opening ceremonies.

July 25, 2024

Thursday’s Headlines Face Our Fears

What happens if Republicans win the trifecta in November? Judging by the GOP-controlled House budget, a lot less money for transit, Smart Cities Dive reports.

July 25, 2024

N.Y. Gov Must Put Up or Shut Up on Congestion Pricing, New Senate Transportation Chair Says

Gov. Hochul must produce a "100-day plan" to replace the $16.5 billion MTA funding shortfall created by her decision to cancel congestion pricing.

July 24, 2024

Wednesday’s Headlines Are in a Good Place

How should we react to public indifference about the danger cars pose to society? Perhaps a sitcom has something to teach us.

July 24, 2024

Opinion: Is Kamala Harris ‘The Climate President We’ve Been Waiting For’?

Kamala Harris fought hard for a better transportation plan in the San Diego region despite big political risks. If elected president, will she do the same for the country?

July 24, 2024
See all posts