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Children and Pollution: School Buses, Second-Hand Smoke

by Sasha Nyary, Feb 06, 2004
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Community groups have been fighting diesel fuel emissions for years. Finally, in late January, four bus companies representing 60 percent of the yellow school buses that are contracted by the Department of Education agreed to stop idling when they are parked near schools following an investigation by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Three companies have also agreed to retrofit some buses with new exhaust filters.

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Spitzer’s office reportedly found that the four companies routinely parked their buses with the engine running for as long as half an hour, even though city law limits idling to three minutes. Idling by the four school bus companies, according to the attorney general, resulted in annual emissions in the metropolitan region of some 1.3 tons of particulate matter, 20 tons of carbon monoxide and 60 tons of nitrogen oxides. The companies are required to monitor their drivers and will have to comply with the agreement within 30 days, by the end of February. They will also pay the city $47,000 to plant trees near schools.

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(The Attorney General will continue to investigate a dozen smaller companies that operate the remaining 40 percent of buses.)

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THE DANGERS OF DIESEL

New York City’s poor air quality is particularly hard on children, whose lungs are fragile and still developing. The city’s 6,000 yellow school buses, because they are run on diesel fuel, are particularly lethal to their 173,000 riders: Particles from diesel exhaust are carcinogenic; truck and car emissions can lead to heart disease; air pollution aggravates allergies, asthma and other respiratory illness. “Major airborne pollutants such as lead, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, contribute to the city’s high incidence of asthma (double the New York State average, in some neighborhoods, and up to six times the national average) and other respiratory ailments,” says the New York League of Conservation Voters. And it’s worse for those inside the bus than those outside, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

More than two years ago, the New York State Power Authority launched a $6 million program to install diesel fuel pollution control systems on a thousand of the buses. “Diesel particulate filters trap exhaust particles and, combined with an engine adjustment and the switch to using ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (with all related costs covered by the power authority), emissions on the school buses are reduced by 90 percent,” Gotham Gazette reported last June. But not one school bus company took advantage of the free program.

One of the sites Spitzer’s office investigated was a public school in the East Village, says Rebecca Kalin of Asthma Free School Zone, which works to reduce asthma-related absenteeism and illness by working with parents, teachers, school staff and area residents to improve air quality in and around public schools. “There are three schools inside the building and 11 school buses outside,” Kalin says. “They idle as long as two hours at a time. It’s a narrow street and the teachers slam their windows shut at pick-up time. And cars trying to pass get stuck by the buses, so they idle, too.”

Kalin is working with City Councilmember Margarita LĂłpez to introduce legislature to designate all public schools in the city asthma-free school zones and post a sign saying as much. “We hope the sign will become like the Good Housekeeping Seal,” Kalin says. “We want to empower people to knock on windows, point to the sign, and ask the driver to turn off the engine.”

INFANTS AND SMOKERS

To further emphasize the danger of the poor air quality in New York City, a new study(in pdf format) finds that exposure to a combination of smoke and pollutants is even worse than exposure to just one factor. It causes lower birth-weight and smaller head circumference in newborns, standard measurements of fetal growth. Lower birth weight has been linked with learning disabilities.

The study, which was conducted by Columbia University’s Center for Children's Environmental Health, compared 226 infants whose mothers lived during pregnancy in households with an active smoker to those whose mothers did not. The newborns of mothers living with smokers weighed seven percent less than average and the circumferences of their heads were three percent smaller. The women in the study were African-Americans and Dominicans living in Washington Heights, central Harlem and the South Bronx, where the asthma rates are the highest nationwide and the rates of low birth weight are the highest in the city.

Using a new technique, researchers tracked the pollutants by measuring DNA damage to get an individual measure of exposure to hydrocarbons, which are caused by truck and car emissions, home heating systems and power generation. “These findings underscore the importance of smoking bans, public education and policies that limit pollution,” said center director Dr. Frederica Perera.

The findings are noteworthy because pollutants affect the human body simultaneously, rather than separately, which is the way they are frequently studied, the researchers told the New York Times : “Previous research has explored the effect of secondhand smoke and urban air pollution independently on fetuses.”

Sasha Nyary, formerly on the staff of Life Magazine and the mother of a public school student, edits the newsletter of The Fifth Avenue Committee, a community-based organization.


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