For the second year in a row, the school bus industry has been put on the defensive by nationally publicized research suggesting that school buses spew diesel exhaust that is harmful to the health of children in and around the bus. Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a report that suggested that children who ride buses are subjected to dangerous levels of diesel exhaust fumes. That “study” was performed using four old buses in notoriously smoggy Los Angeles. In addition, it was plain that the NRDC had a not-so-hidden agenda - to influence an impending vote on a proposed ban on the purchase of new diesel school buses in Southern California. As you might recall, the study was later discredited by more objective research. 2 blasts across the bow
Already this year, two studies have been released. The first was issued by Yale professor John Wargo and was brought to light on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Wargo’s research produced findings similar to those of the NRDC, but he took the research one step further and measured pollution outside the bus. Based on his findings, Wargo suggested that school bus drivers reduce vehicle idling time by turning off their engines as soon as they reach school. He also recommended that riding times be minimized to reduce children’s exposure inside the bus. Both of these recommendations are reasonable. In fact, two states - Connecticut and New Hampshire - recently adopted anti-idling policies that will curb diesel exhaust emissions. In a separate study, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that only six states and the District of Columbia ranked “ahead of the curve” in a national report card analyzing pollution threats from school bus fleets. Meanwhile, 23 states received a “middle of the road” ranking, and 21 states did poorly or flunked. Unlike Wargo’s research, this study wasn’t based on actual monitoring of air quality in or around buses. Instead, it used a statistical analysis of the makeup of bus fleets in each state to determine pollution levels. States with older fleets, such as California and Washington, fared worst. It’s not a particularly compelling study, but it does point out that many states are operating buses that should be replaced. Yes, more can be done
The proper response to these types of studies isn’t a blanket denial of their legitimacy. Yes, they are clearly biased against diesel and supportive of natural gas. More objective research is needed to determine whether a health hazard exists both inside and around the bus. Here’s what we do know: School transportation providers do a tremendous job in protecting children from bumps, bruises and more serious flesh-and-bone injuries. But I believe more could be done to protect them from the very real threat of air-borne contaminants. The keys to this effort will be to reduce idling times, which costs nothing and can be implemented right away, and to replace older buses with the technologically advanced vehicles that are available today from all of the school bus manufacturers. The second objective is much more problematic, given the state of the economy. Perhaps you can loosen your school board’s purse strings with the following message, corroborated by these two studies: Buying new school buses, whether they’re powered by diesel or alternative fuels, is good for the environment and sound public policy.