Cleaning Up the Air on the Bus

May 15, 2007

by Mark Bishop, HSC Deputy Director

It’s no secret that school buses pose real health threats to students.

Now, legislators in Illinois have a chance to take action and protect children from the health threats created by school bus diesel exhaust.

According to the American Lung Association, soot from diesel exhaust triggers over 19,000 asthma attacks every year in Illinois and is one of the most toxic of all the air pollutants that the EPA tracks.

Recent research also highlights an important aspect of the diesel emission issue that is often overlooked: it’s more than just an outdoor air pollution problem.

The research shows that the greatest risk for diesel engine exhaust exposure is not during the loading and unloading of passengers, but during the time children spend on the bus.  The study found “in-vehicle pollution concentrations to be much higher than those found in the ambient air.”

In 2005, the federal government passed a law that would fund states to implement clean school bus strategies, strategies that could reduce the toxic emissions from school buses by up to 95 percent. But the funding for these strategies has yet to materialize for states. In a recent CNN story, the author notes that: 

Around the country, state officials are struggling to find the money to carry out clean school bus initiatives. And Congress has yet to deliver on the $1 billion it promised over five years to help states clean up diesel fleets, including school buses.

If the federal government won’t come through with the funding to help us protect children’s health from dangerous diesel exhaust on school buses, what should we do?

Citizen Action Illinois and the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago developed legislation, SB268, that would create the Diesel Emission Reduction Fund in Illinois, supported by fees related to diesel engines and noncompliance penalties. This is an important step toward cleaner and healthier school buses.

School bus transportation remains one of the safest ways for children to travel to and from school. The risk of a vehicle crash is about five times higher for a passenger car driven by an adult than it is for a school bus.

However, the air children breathe on the bus is critically important: research shows a need for action on this issue, and the lack of federal involvement shows a need for state-level intervention protecting children.

It’s time for Illinois to step up and invest in healthier and cleaner ways to transport our children to school.