Diesel buses put asthma-sufferers at risk

Nearly ten percent of American children have asthma. Think about that for a moment: almost one in ten of the kids you see headed to school every day, walking, biking, being driven in cars and buses, have difficulty breathing and can experience serious health issues when air quality is poor. Diesel buses, as most school buses are, contribute to this air pollution.

And rates of asthma are rising. From 2001-2011 (the last time these over-time numbers were released), the number of those suffering from the condition rose by 28%. Looking at these statistics, you’d imagine that our society would be taking some drastic steps for our fellow humans to breathe a little easier. Right?

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Yet, we still pack our children into emissions-heavy diesel buses to bring them to school and to special events, exposing them to harmful nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions. These substances and the vehicles that emit them are heavily regulated by the EPA for a good reason: they decrease lung health and create poor air conditions on the ground for breathing human beings. Indeed, the EPA is very clear about the negative health effects of NOx:

Breathing air with a high concentration of NO2 can irritate airways in the human respiratory system. Such exposures over short periods can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, leading to respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing), hospital admissions and visits to emergency rooms. Longer exposures to elevated concentrations of NO2 may contribute to the development of asthma and potentially increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Effects of NOx, Health Effects, EPA website

Given the clear dangers that emissions from riding in diesel buses present, the solution seems pretty clear: we need to replace the hundreds of thousands of diesel school buses in America with cleaner options that protect our children and and ensure a more breathable future for all Americans.

diesel buses
Diesel school buses, especially ones built in 2009 or older, produce unacceptably high levels of harmful emissions that put our children at risk.

NOx emissions lower student test scores

What if you or your children don’t have asthma or are not at risk for developing it? There are troubling effects of NOx and other emissions that are found in high levels in older diesel school buses that mean that your children might not be in the clear.

This study from the National Bureau of Economic Research and Georgia State University, for example, found a link between “dirtier bus exhaust [and] worse academic performance.” The study also found that exposure to higher levels of bus exhaust was correlated with lower health outcomes for students across the board — not just asthma sufferers.

“Students do better on English tests if they have cleaner air,” said Daniel Kreisman, an assistant professor of economics who co-authored the study. “It’s not a huge effect. It’s not like they’re going to skip two grades, but they definitely scored better.”

“This is an important study because it is the first to directly link bus fumes to school performance,” says Sara Adar, a researcher at the University of Michigan. Sara, an associate professor of epidemiology, wasn’t involved in the Georgia study, but did work on a different study several years ago that tracked students who were switched from buses with dirty exhaust to those with cleaner systems.

“We found that kids were far less likely to miss school when they were riding cleaner buses than when they were riding dirty buses,” she said. “There is new evidence that exhaust particles can get into the brain,” she said. “Those older, dirtier buses are ones we should get off the road.”

Cleaner school buses are available right now

Hundreds of school districts around the country have understood the serious risks posed by aging diesel school bus fleets, and have risen to the challenge of ensuring the health and success of their students. These districts have chosen to embrace alternative fuel technology in their school bus fleets. These fuels – including propane, compressed natural gas, and electric – dramatically lower the emissions that students are exposed to while on or around school buses.

Take a look at the potential success of propane-powered school buses in lowering NOx emissions. If the USA’s 450,000 school buses were replaced with propane-powered options, this change would lower NOx emissions by 8 million pounds per year. That’s 8 million fewer pounds of dangerous, health-affecting emissions that our children are not potentially breathing in on their rides to and from school.

propane buses cause less emissions than diesel buses
There are over 18,000 propane-powered school buses on America’s roads today. And with 480,000 school buses of all kinds on the roads today, imagine the emissions reductions that could come with converting our nationwide school bus fleet to cleaner, alternative fuels!

Propane-powered school buses have been robustly tested and meet or exceed all safety standards. They are safe, clean, quiet, and reliable, and they reduce the harmful emissions that young students may breathe in when they ride on school buses every day.

What’s more, they are available to be put on the road and into use today, right now. The technology is already here: but we need to advocate for their adoption loudly enough that the people who make transportation decisions for our students can hear us.

There are multiple manufacturers of propane school buses in the USA, but one of the most well-known is Blue Bird, whose Vision Propane school bus has been purchased over 12,000 times worldwide. Blue Bird touts the engine in their Vision Propane bus as being the cleanest propane engine in the industry, exceeding regulatory requirements of producing 0.02g NOx/bhp-hr.

Not only are the buses themselves available, but propane is a widely-distributed fuel that school districts can easily access through one of the well-established propane providers in the USA. Companies like Alliance AutoGas, AmeriGas, and Ferrellgas can even set up infrastructure right at a school district’s maintenance facility, making refueling convenient and easy.

propane buses are better than diesel buses
Blue Bird’s Vision Propane school bus is the best-selling propane school bus in the United States, with over 12,000 vehicles sold worldwide.

What can I do to reduce NOx emissions for my children’s ride to school?

Of the 480,000 school buses on US roads today, about 21,000 run on alternative, lower-emissions fuels such as propane, natural gas, and electricity. That’s just over 4%. This means that there is huge room for improvement when it comes to reducing harmful emissions that your children may be exposed to on their rides to and from school!

Contact your local school district’s transportation management department and ask them what their policy on harmful emissions is. Inquire if they’ve considered switching to lower emissions fuels for their buses. Send them the studies that show how exposure to NOx, particulate matter and other criteria pollutants may reduce student health outcomes and test scores!

Many of the people who make decisions about transportation in your school district may not even know about these issues. It’s up to us to educate and inform about the dangers of diesel fuel emissions exposure, and present real, affordable, and available alternatives that school districts can adopt to keep children healthy and able to succeed.’

Are you a school district representative who’s interested in making the switch to alternative fuels in your school buses? There are plenty of resources to help connect you with information, training, and even funding to help you make the switch. There are nearly 90 Clean Cities Coalitions across the country who work tirelessly to help fleets and individuals switch to cleaner and more affordable alternative fuels. Find your local Coalition and get in touch to learn more and get the process started!

clean cities coalitions fighting against nox emissions and diesel buses
Clean Cities Coalitions are ready and waiting to help your school district switch to alternative fuels that can save you money, maintenance headaches, and ensure a safe, quiet, healthy ride for your children to get to and from school.

Healthier students mean a more successful workforce and a stronger population

With so many emissions-lowering alternative fuel options for our school bus fleets, and strong evidence that diesel emissions exposure harms our children, we simply have no excuse not to advocate for broad, national adoption of safer, cleaner transportation technologies for our students.

But these discussions aren’t happening nearly often enough. We need concerned parents, health advocates, and school district decision-makers to come together and adopt these technologies to ensure a healthier and more successful student population. This is about our children’s health and ability to succeed in school! It’s about building a world that our children can live and thrive in. What’s more important than that?



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