Tennessee 'middle of the road' on school bus pollution

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   Report cards are in on the nation's school buses, and Tennessee's fleet ranks right in the "middle of the road," along with 22 other states, when it comes to pollution, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
   Patricia Monahan, UCS senior clean vehicles analyst and author of "Pollution Report Card: Grading America's School Bus Fleets," said, "In a single year, America's average school bus emits as much soot as 125 cars."
   According to the report card, only six states and the District of Columbia ranked "ahead of the curve," while the remaining 21 states either did poorly or flunked.
   The report card assigned each state fleet-wide grades based on the emissions of toxic soot particulates, smog-forming pollution, and heat-trapping global warming gases.
   According to the report card, Tennessee received a "B" in smog-forming, a "C" in soot, and a "C" in global warming, for an overall C+ rating.
   "California's and Washington's fleets were the worst in the country, but every state relies upon high-polluting school buses," Monahan said.
   Nearly 90 percent of the 454,000 school buses on the road today are powered by diesel fuel, which has been linked to a variety of health problems including asthma and other respiratory ailments, according to the study.
   The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, in 1998, said one child in 20 had asthma, or more than 3.7 million children.
   While most states rely on diesel buses to transport children, no state monitors the amount of pollution released from them or requires school districts to purchase low-emission buses, Monahan said.
   America's school bus fleet emits almost 95,000 tons of smog-forming pollution and more than 3,000 tons of soot every year.
   Diesel soot is small enough to evade the body's defenses and lodge deep in children's lungs, increasing the likelihood of asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart disease, and even premature death. Other chemicals emitted contribute to smog, which impairs the respiratory system and causes coughing, choking, and reduced lung capacity, according to the report.
   "Diesel pollution harms everyone, but our children and their developing lungs are hurt the most," said Michelle Robinson, senior advocate for clean vehicles at UCS. "Going to school should not be hazardous to our kids' health."
   Buses built before 1990-91 constitute a third of those currently in operation and are allowed to release at least six times more soot and nearly three times more smog-forming nitrogen oxides than today's models, while buses which rely on cleaner technologies such as natural gas emit 90 percent less soot than new diesel-powered buses, the report states. However, natural gas buses also cost about $35,000 more.
   "The large gap in performance between standard diesel buses and natural gas buses shows that even the 'cleanest' state fleet has room for improvement," said Monahan.
   The scientists said some states make school districts choose between new buses and other educational expenses. They recommended the government sponsor and conduct research, set standards and policies to ensure emissions reductions, and provide funding to replace and clean up older diesel school buses.
   "As long as there remains a trade-off between books and buses, children's health may be compromised," the report said.
   The Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent nonprofit alliance of 50,000 concerned citizens and scientists across the country, was founded in 1969 by faculty members and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.