By Denise Patel
Denise Patel holds a Master in Public Health from Columbia University. She is a consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety issues.
As buses drop off students or wait outside schools ready to take them home, they could be creating harmful air pollution and contributing to climate change. Idling school buses also waste fuel and money by causing unnecessary wear and tear on vehicles.
Diesel exhaust from idling school buses contains significant levels of particulate matter, specifically a class of particulates abbreviated as PM2.5. Exhaust contains over 35 toxic chemicals, including pollutants and carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde. The particles are small enough to become deeply embedded in the lungs and heart and can enter the bloodstream. Short-term exposure irritates the eyes, nose and throat and causes headaches, light-headedness and nausea. For students and school staff with allergies, asthma or other respiratory illness, these particles may cause coughing or an increase in the frequency or intensity of asthma attacks.
Long-term exposure to PM2.5 increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, decreased lung function, cancer and premature death. Children are more vulnerable than adults because they breathe faster and consume 50 percent more air per pound of body weight. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can damage a developing baby’s vital organs including the brain, heart and lungs, and lead to a range of conditions including asthma, heart disease and cancers later in life. As children’s bodies develop, PM2.5 exposure can continue to affect development, contributing to lower IQ and increased behavioral issues.
Unfortunately, air sampling does not provide reliable PM2.5 measurements. It often fails to represent true exposures, especially for substances that have no safe levels, such as carcinogens. With older buses, exhaust odors experienced inside the school or in or around the buses, indicate exposure. Newer buses emit less or no odor, but still produce particulates. A bus that sits idling for more than three minutes emits more PM2.5, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants than a bus that is restarted after parking.
Exposure time is also an important factor to assess risk. Students typically spend one-half to two hours a day on the school bus and bus drivers are exposed for several hours each day. Diesel exhaust can travel from the tailpipe into bus cabins, into school buildings, and along the entire bus route through air intakes, open windows and doors.
Asthma affects 6.1 million children and is the most common long-term childhood disease in America. Making newer, cleaner buses an urgent priority can have a positive impact on health and education.
Fortunately, New Jersey has passed laws to restrict bus idling time to protect the health of students and school staff, as described below. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (NJDEP) Mandatory Diesel Retrofit Program succeeded in retrofitting the oldest, most polluting school buses manufactured before 2007. After 2007, buses were made with a closed crankcase ventilation system (CCVS), designed to capture fuel vapors that escape from the engine and feed them back into the combustion process. Most pre-2007 school buses in the state were converted by 2013, unless a district or contractor purchased a pre-2007 bus.
While retrofitting greatly reduces emissions, it does not completely eliminate them. Asthma affects 6.1 million children and is the most common long-term childhood disease in America. Making newer, cleaner buses an urgent priority can have a positive impact on health and education. In 2013, nearly half of all school-aged children missed at least one day of school due to asthma.
Earlier this year, state Sens. Linda Greenstein and Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. introduced legislation (S-723) to make it easier for school districts to eliminate diesel buses in favor of electric buses. New Jersey law currently restricts school buses to 96 inches in width. If passed, the bill will increase the permissible width to 102 inches, which is the size of most available electric buses. Electrifying school buses will also help reduce environmental pollution that causes ozone pollution, acid rain and climate change.
Local associations are encouraged to work with their UniServ field representatives to stop bus and other vehicles from idling. Measures to take include:
A. Resist district attempts to privatize transportation services. There is typically less staff turnover among school board employees compared to private transportation firms. Moreover, school boards have direct oversight of district staff rather than depending on a private transportation service to enforce no-idling regulations. Local association leaders, particularly those who are bus drivers, can play a positive role in endeavors to make no-idling a universal practice.
B. Work with the school district to order “No Idling” signs from NJDEP and post them outside the school. This will also remind automobile drivers in pick-up loops to follow what most school bus drivers already do, turn off their vehicles. Available for order here.
C. Encourage school districts and school bus contractors to take the NJDEP “No Idling Pledge,” promising to:
D. Turn off engines while waiting to load and unload students.
E. Use newest school buses for longest routes.
F. Maintain buses to eliminate any visible exhaust.
G. Complete school bus driver training on eliminating idling.
H. Retrofit older school buses with emission controls, idle reduction technologies or newer engines that use cleaner fuels and factor in emissions when purchasing new school buses. The EPA has developed a Diesel Emissions Quantifier (DEQ) to help school districts calculate how much reducing idling can reduce your fuel costs.
I. Identify your allies. Enlist school bus drivers, students and parents in your campaign. The Jersey Renews Coalition, of which both NJEA and the NJ Work Environment Council are members, advocates for the electrification of transportation, including school buses.
J. If buses are parked overnight alongside a school, ensure they warm up away from the school. Most school bus engines only need three to five minutes to warm up. Running an engine at low speed burns fuel and creates twice as much wear on internal parts as driving the bus at regular speed.
With a few exceptions, diesel school buses are prohibited from idling for more than three minutes. They are allowed to idle, however, for 15 minutes in any 60 minutes while actively loading and unloading passengers—even though NJDEP recommends no idling. Violations of the idling rules can result in fines of from $250 to $1,000 per bus per day, on the bus owner. The driver is not fined unless the driver owns the bus.
Local associations should consult with their UniServ field reps and work with their districts to ensure that school district transportation policies are in alignment with the law and that all school bus drivers are properly trained. If violations occur, local association officials can report them to the local health department.