Bus Exhaust Pits Health Worries and Cost Concerns

Exhaust from school buses can be harmful to students' health. Old diesel buses generate fumes that can trigger asthma attacks and other harmful health conditions. In Texas, environmentalists want the state to help pay for new low-exhaust equipment for the state's buses. It costs as much as $7,000 per bus, and school districts say they don't have the money.

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For millions of children, riding a school bus can be hazardous to their health. That's because harmful exhaust fumes can get inside the bus. School districts are trying to reduce the pollution, and that can be expensive. In Texas, environmentalists are pushing the state to help with the cost.

Janet Heimlich has this report from Austin.

JANET HEIMLICH reporting:

Isabella Schmidt's(ph) two young children ride the school bus in Conroe outside of Houston. Schmidt says she worries about the air they're breathing, while they're sitting there for 30 or 40 minutes. Most of Texas's school buses are not air conditioned, so the windows are usually open. Schmidt says that's good and bad news. It helps air out the bus.

Ms. ISABELLA SCHMIDT: But each stop, then it will be taking in more of the soot and the emissions that are coming out of the engine, as well as the tail pipes.

HEIMLICH: This pollution is especially hard on young lungs. It contains microscopic dust and soot called particulate matter. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these particles can get lodged in the lungs and aggravate asthma and bronchitis; they can even cause premature death.

Betin Santos is with Environmental Defense in Houston.

Ms. BETIN SANTOS (Manager, Environmental Defense): Current studies are showing that those levels of pollution inside the bus can be five to 10 times higher than the outside air.

HEIMLICH: Many school districts have taken steps to clean up their buses.

Mr. KRIS HAFEZIZADEH (Assistant Director of Transportation, Austin Independent School District): There's no black smoke coming out of the tail pipe. That's, again - it's got a lot to do with the type of diesel we're using.

HEIMLICH: Kris Hafezizadeh is standing in the bus parking lot at the Austin Independent School District. He's the Assistant Director of Transportation here. This afternoon, hundreds of yellow and black buses are idling along, waiting to go pick up kids. Hafezizadeh says five years ago, the school district decided to stop using regular diesel. Now, all 445 buses fill up with ultra low sulfur diesel.

Mr. HAFEZIZADEH: It's the best diesel out in the market. And this fuel is felt to reduce emission in our buses.

HEIMLICH: In fact, this cleaner fuel reduces particulate matter by 10 to 20 percent.

Mr. HAFEZIZADEH: It is more expensive fuel than the regular diesel.

HEIMLICH: Costing the district about $90,000 more a year. The district has also been replacing its older school buses. Today, most are 10 years old or younger. This is important because the new buses emit a lot less pollution than the older ones.

(Soundbite of bus stopping)

HEIMLICH: Inside the district's garage, foreman Mark Gans(ph) stands next to a brand new school bus.

Mr. MARK GANS (Foreman, Austin Independent School District Maintenance Garage): The injection system, everything is managed by the computer. And it monitors this all day long while they're out driving; and it readjusts the fuel systems to put out lower emissions.

HEIMLICH: Investing in new buses also has a big price tag. Two years ago, the city passed a bond that gave the district $13 million to buy new school buses. It's also received some federal grants, but these are limited. So critics say the state should do more to reduce emission in its buses.

Ramón Alvarez is with Environmental Defense in Austin.

Dr. RAMÓN ALVAREZ (Atmospheric Scientist, Environmental Defense): The technologies are out there to reduce the emission from the school buses. So what the state should do is to provide funding for school districts to be able to install these technologies on a widespread basis.

HEIMLICH: But the state has other environmental problems to worry about. Big metropolitan areas, like Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, are in violation of the Clean Air Act because they're emitting what is called nitrogen oxides. School buses don't cough up a lot of this pollution compared to, say, construction equipment and power plants.

Dennis Bonnen chairs the Committee on Environmental Regulation. Bonnen says he wants to spend money on complying with the Clean Air Act.

State Representative DENNIS BONNEN (Chairman, Committee on Environmental Regulation, Texas House of Representatives): The federal government has made it very clear to us that they would come in, and first and foremost, stop sending us federal highway dollars. They would also have no-drive days. So there are a lot of very draconian things that could occur if we do not meet these Clean Air standards.

HEIMLICH: But, Bonnen says, cleaning up school buses is still important. Next year, he says, he'll push the legislature to put $1 million towards some pilot programs. Something else that would help: the federal government has ordered that only ultra low sulfur fuel be sold at diesel pumps come October. That means that all diesel school buses, no matter how old they are, will run cleaner.

For NPR News, I'm Janet Heimlich in Austin.

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