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This week, the folks at GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution) did a retro thing in our digital, share-it-all world. Rather than deluge Pittsburgh Public Schools with tweets and Facebook posts asking them to upgrade their buses to spew less pollution, they went old-school, delivering hundreds of postcards, signed by parents and community members, to district administration at a Board of Education meeting.

IdleBlog1

In mid-December, Group Against Smog and Pollution delivered hundreds of signed postcards to Pittsburgh Public Schools, urging them to upgrade school buses so that they emit fewer pollutants.

 

School buses? They emit pollution? Yes.

Every day, while kids wait to board the bus after school, while they’re in transit, idling school buses release a soup of polluting chemicals into the air and into your kids’ lungs. It’s called diesel particulate matter, and it’s made up of benzene, formaldehyde, nitrogen compounds, sulfur compounds, and tiny pieces of metal, ash and carbon (dude, that’s a list!).

And it’s not just your kids breathing in that stuff. The teachers and para-pros who wait with them and the bus drivers who take them home also get lungs full of the stuff. Every day.

Buses waiting near Pittsburgh's downtown schools. They are turned off, not idling.

Buses waiting near Pittsburgh’s downtown schools. They are turned off, not idling.

Pollution is strongly linked to childhood asthma, other respiratory illnesses in kids and adults and heart problems in grown-ups. So, GASP’s request to PPS was a simple one – as the district renegotiates their contract with the school bus companies they want to work with, insist that

a) they use only newer buses built with emission controls,

or

b) that they retrofit their old fleets with diesel particulate filters.

 

GASP said to the district, be part of the plan to give our kids the cleanest air possible every day.

 

We have some of the worst air in the United States, and that’s true for pretty much all of the Pittsburgh area. Idling may not be our biggest source of pollution in Pittsburgh, but it’s an important and comparatively easy one to manage.

 

While the bulk of the schmutz in the air comes from industrial point sources like coke ovens, the few remaining steel mills and cement plants, a good chunk of it also comes from commercial diesel vehicles. By law, they are allowed to idle for five out of every 60 minutes in operation, and up to 15 minutes per hour if they carry passengers in need of say, heat or air conditioning.

 

So, school buses, tour buses, those large coaches that take commuters back to the exurbs each day – they really aren’t supposed to sit with their engines running. Yet, they do, even in the case of school buses, as they are sitting in front of mandatory signs asking them not to. GASP has sent several hundred signs to 13 different regional school districts, including most recently, the one in Hempfield.

Buses are not supposed to idle outside schools for longer than five minutes per 60 minute stretch.

Buses are not supposed to idle outside schools for longer than five minutes per 60 minute stretch.

 

Getting newer buses is a good deal for districts, too. They are more reliable. Parents get fewer calls about stalled buses. Drivers don’t have to worry if turning off the bus means they won’t be able to turn it back on.

 

And then, there’s this: money. The idling law is only enforceable by Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection inspectors and local police departments. The cops get half the fine in civic revenue for each ticket paid. For communities who have the manpower, enforcing this law means cash in the coffers.

 

So, as the school year continues, here’s to the teachers, parents, drivers and even the kids themselves who talk to bus drivers and school officials about this issue, and who value the littlest lungs in our city. Cleaner buses and less idling means a less toxic educational environment in southwestern PA, and who wouldn’t get behind that?

 

If your school district is lacking the mandatory signage contact GASP at idling@gasp-pgh.org for information on free signs.

 

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