It is supposed to be the safest way to school. But a new study by The Natural Resources Defense Council says students on diesel school buses are being exposed to a cancer risk thats as much as 46 times the safety standards set by the E.P.A. The culprit: diesel fumes.
Gail Ruderman Feuer, of the National Resource Defense Council, says, "the levels of diesel exhaust are higher inside the bus than next to the bus." More than 8 times higher, according to tests run on Los Angeles buses that are similar to those used to transport some 24-million students to school every day. Levels were especially high in the back of buses.
Gina Solomon, M.D., a staff scientist at The Natural Resources Defense Council, says, "once those particles get into their lungs, childrens defense systems in their lungs are often not as good as adults. Theyre less able to remove some of those particles."
In California, diesel exhaust is officially recognized as a cancer-causing agent. The exhaust from diesel trucks and buses are possibly responsible for 70% of the cancer risk posed by air pollution in the vast Los Angeles basin.
To reduce the health risk, southern California officials are about to impose new clean air rules forcing school districts to buy cleaner buses. The cleanest are CNGs, a compressed natural gas vehicle that make up part of the fleet in Lancaster, California. Ken McCoy from the Antelope Valley Schools says, "I think, first of all, that it is the right thing to do. Secondly, I can operate it cheaper than I can a diesel bus. and thats the bottom line."
But it is a costly bottom line. Even with promised government funding, some school districts are resisting. The funding isnt enough, they argue, because CNG buses are expensive--$30,000 dollars more than another alternative.
The new so-called green diesel buses that burn cleaner, low sulfur fuel, is an option for the Ontario-Montclair school district. David Walthall from the district says, "it helps us start cleaning the environment much faster than we could do with the natural gas bus simply because of the price."
Clean air groups hope the Natural Resources Defense Council study will eventually drive all diesel school buses off the road. But the diesel industry may have a powerful new friend in this fight. The Bush administration is already reviewing last-minute legislation passed by Clinton for even cleaner diesel fuel. That order could be reversed.
"Were keeping our fingers crossed that we dont see rollbacks. It is unlikely that we are going to see strengthening of the rules," says Gail Ruderman Feuer.
But the first battleground is southern California, where next month the nations toughest school bus standards will be ordered, and the students who ride them will learn if theyre breathing any easier.
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