There’s no surer sign that the school year has begun than the hordes of yellow buses suddenly rolling into our neighborhoods. They do a great job of getting the kids to school. In fact, they’d be perfect if it weren’t for the toxins they’re spewing all over their precious cargo.
Chief among these perils are large amounts of ultra fine particulate matter released by the diesel fuel that makes the wheels on the typical school bus go round and round. This soot is so fine that you could fit several thousand of its particles on the period at the end of this sentence. That incredibly tiny size allows diesel particulates to penetrate children’s narrower airways, reaching deeply into young lungs where they are more likely to be retained.
When buses idle in the school yard, clouds of these invisible particulates fill the surrounding air, the school, and the bus itself, and that’s a bummer for all kinds of reasons. In addition to carbon particulates diesel exhaust contains 40 chemicals that are classified as “hazardous air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act. The EPA has declared diesel exhaust a likely human carcinogen, and it’s doubly hazardous to kids whose lungs are still developing and who breathe more air than adults on a bodyweight basis.
To clear the air, many communities have adopted no-idling policies that require buses and service vehicles to shut their engines off when they arrive and keep them off until they depart. If yours isn’t one of them, it’s time to get in gear and work with your local bus company, drivers, and schools to ban idling.
It’s really a bit of an environmental no-brainer. In addition to cleaner air, no-idling saves money by lowering fuel consumption and lessening engine wear. It’s easy, painless, and reaps a wealth of healthy benefits. Yet not everyone’s for it. Many believe that bus engines need long warm up times; produce more pollution when started cold than if left idling; and must run to power safety and electrical systems. None of these things are true—engines need just a few minute’s warm-up in cold weather and emit fewer particulates being restarted than they do idling for more than three minutes. And they can be easily rewired, if needed, to run electrical systems without draining batteries.
If you want to be an anti-idling advocate, dispelling myths like these is first thing you’ll have to do. Then resources like these will help make sure your efforts don’t stall:
- Check to see if no-idling laws already exist where you live. Yours may only be an issue of enforcement. The American Transportation Research Institute maintains a state-by-state database of regulations.
- The EPA offers information and resources like a fuel savings calculator and a boilerplate no-idling policy.
- The Earth Day Network has a no-idling campaign with lots of free materials and other useful things.
- Don’t forget about cars! Sustainable America’s anti-idling toolkit will help lower their pollution, too.
About the Inkslinger
The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America’s most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds.
Photo: John Picken