It's a typical weekday morning at the bus stop. You're waiting with your child on the corner in the cold, crisp air. As the bus approaches, you review the contents of your child's backpack one last time. Art folder, science project, bag lunch. It's all there. “Drink your juice and remember your jacket when you go out for recess,” you say. “And don't lose those mittens.” The bus pulls up, blackened exhaust spewing from its tailpipe as the door swings open. You gasp for air and bat the fumes from your face while waving good-bye. The bus pulls away, the residue of its stench subsiding as it fades from view. You breathe freely again, then turn your thoughts to the day ahead. But have you given thought to what your child might be inhaling on the ride to school?
Last September, around the same time school bells across the nation began to ring in a new academic year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a 10-year health assessment of diesel exhaust. Its findings? Diesel emissions contain toxic gases and minute particles that are easily inhaled deep into the lungs, especially small lungs. Children who ride buses to school are exposed to these toxins daily, placing them at higher risk of lung cancer, asthma and other respiratory ailments, the study found. And in high-traffic areas, the EPA reports, the health risk is even greater. The air your child is breathing while traveling to school on a bus can be hazardous to his health, the EPA warns. “Most parents don't have a clue what their child's being exposed to on the school bus,” says Elizabeth Sword, executive director of the Children's Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC), a Princeton, N.J.–based national organization dedicated to providing parents with the information they need to make fully informed decisions. “This just isn't something that's going to come up over coffee,” Sword says. “It's not an issue that's on people's radar screens. Their concern is getting their child to school and back. They've never considered the ride as a health risk.” But environmental experts have focused on the risks of diesel exposure for years. “There's no question there are chemicals in diesel exhaust that are hazardous to children's health,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and director of Mount Sinai's Center for Children's Health and the Environment, in New York City. “First of all,” Dr. Landrigan explains, “you have irritant materials, like formaldehyde, and oxides of nitrogen, which are very irritating to children. If a child already has asthma those chemicals can trigger an asthmatic attack. You've also got all of the black soot, which is referred to technically as poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and those compounds can, to a child, be carcinogenic.” “One of the main contributors to that exposure is children who ride school buses,” Sword says. “In the U.S., there are something like 600,000 school buses that move 24 million students back and forth to school every day. Diesel is a big contributor to asthma, and in an urban area, you add the diesel exhaust exposure to all the other urban air quality problems.” “The realization of how hazardous these chemicals are has come on only during the last few years,” Dr. Landrigan says. “Certainly, when diesel engines were first on the market, the risks weren't appreciated.” According to clean air advocate Emily Figdor of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the report marks “the first time that the EPA has officially classified diesel exhaust as a likely human carcinogen at environmental levels of exposure.” A consumer advocacy group, PIRG works with the EPA to increase public awareness of environmental issues and encourage communities to get involved in efforts to move forward with tougher standards. The new standards for diesel engines, however, won't be enacted until 2007, and won't be fully implemented until 2010, Figdor says. “So unfortunately, we're still years away from clean-air trucks and buses.”
So what should concerned parents do in the meantime? “You may think about driving your child to school, which isn't a solution you'd want everyone to make. It isn't an institutional solution, and it may not be an option available to everyone,” Sword says. In most areas of the city, it borders on impossible. And research shows it's dangerous, says Peter Mannella, executive director of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation (NYAPT), which represents school district transportation administrators throughout the state. According to a report released in June 2002 by the National Academies Transportation Research Board, “about 800 school-age children are killed in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours. Of these 800 deaths, only about 2 percent are school bus related, while 74 percent occur in private passenger vehicles, and 22 percent are the result of pedestrian or bicycle accidents.” “Putting a child on a school bus is the safest way to get that child to school,” Mannella says. “We are moving forward, so that when the EPA says thou shalt comply with these standards, we will be there, if we haven't already been there for a year or so.” In fact, adds Mannella, buses achieving the new EPA standards are already on the market. But the new fleet will come with a hefty price tag. Higher technology, combined with less efficiency from emissions controls, he says, will result in these buses costing two to three thousand dollars more than the current fleet. “They're still the right thing to do,” Mannella says. “Remember, it's for your kids.” In the interim, Figdor of PIRG says, the current fleet can be made cleaner by retrofitting the buses with advanced emissions control devices, very similar to catalytic converters in cars. Concerned parents can work with the school system to help accelerate change, says Sword, who recommends contacting your district's head of transportation as a first step, then to learn all you can about how the system operates. She urges parents to investigate the bus company that's contracted; inquire about the quality of the fleet, how bus routes are determined, what instructions bus drivers are given about idling. “Then, armed with the data about what your district does and how it makes decisions, I would approach the school board with some positive recommendations,” Sword suggests. Parents can also work with city officials to ensure that when decisions are made to replace or clean up the city's fleets, public health is a primary consideration, says Figdor, pointing to the reconstruction of the World Trade Center as an example. Steps are already under way to reduce the risks associated with diesel pollution being created from the massive amount of citywide construction, Figdor says, by using cleaner fuel and retrofitting various diesel equipment with emissions controls. “This is a great first step and New Yorkers can look to it as a model for the nation.” But, we need to take further steps, Figdor chides. “Parents who are concerned about these risks should talk to their legislators in Congress and ask them to urge the EPA to move forward,” she says. A prepared letter advocating support of EPA's revised standards can be accessed at www.cleanairnow.org. Groups, such as parent-teacher associations, can also use it as a model for developing their own letters, Figdor adds. “Parents have a responsibility to join with others and work to persuade cities and states and the federal government not to continue to buy diesel,” Dr. Landrigan says. “Diesel is a hazardous technology, and we need to be thinking about safer alternatives. But the only way that we'll accomplish that is if lots and lots of parents join together and write in letters, and behave as citizens. Unfortunately, there's no short cut to that.”