Monday, September 8, 2008

Program Targets School Bus Fumes

When the bell rings signaling the end of the school day, students race to the buses waiting to take them home. Some of those buses sit with their engines running, churning up dangerous diesel exhaust particles.

Inhaling diesel exhaust can worsen or cause asthma, the most common childhood chronic lung disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical College of Georgia researchers aim to reduce that risk in Richmond County through Clean My R.I.D.E. - A Coalition to Reduce Inhalation of Diesel Exhaust.

"We'll assess the particulate exposure at schools, educate parents, teachers and bus drivers about the associated dangers and current idling policies and ultimately help develop a plan to decrease exposure to diesel exhaust," says Kitty Hernlen, assistant professor in the School of Allied Health Sciences Department of Respiratory Therapy and principal investigator of the $6,400 East Central Health District grant funding the program.

Bus and carpool practices will be monitored in five Richmond County schools: A. Brian Merry Elementary, Willis Foreman Elementary and Meadowbrook Elementary Schools, SpiritCreek Middle School and Butler High School. The research team will spend three days at each school to observe bus configurations, count idling vehicles and count airborne particles in the transportation pick-up areas 30 minutes before and after the dismissal bell rings.

"Every day, kids are walking through a diesel cloud to buses that are filling with diesel fumes and particulates," says Dr. Randy Baker, co-principal investigator and chair of the respiratory therapy department. "Buses at some schools will be in a straight line and others in a bus farm, where buses wait side by side. We want to determine if the bus configuration makes a difference in the concentration of particles and how long the particles hang around after the buses leave."

Diesel exhaust contains carbon particles and more than 40 hazardous air pollutants. Researchers will use a portable airborne particle counter to measure those that reach the lungs. Approximately 94 percent of particulate matter emitted through diesel exhaust is small enough to penetrate a child's narrow airways, which can inflame lungs and trigger asthma.

Pediatric deaths due to asthma are rare, but the Central Savannah River Area has seen a dramatic increase in asthma deaths in recent years – from three deaths between 1999-2004 to four deaths in a three-month period in 2006, says Ms. Hernlen.

"That cluster of deaths prompted the CDC to investigate the Augusta area," she says. "They didn't find one specific cause, but a whole list of things, and recommended asthma education for the entire community."

Ms. Hernlen is counting on the school community to do its part.

"We want to educate the schools through the parent-teacher associations, show them our findings and see if they can help change the idling policy. It's ultimately up to the school board whether they want to pursue a no-idling policy," she says.

The Richmond County Board of Education is already taking steps to eliminate unnecessary idling with a new directive to conserve fuel and lessen accumulation of fumes in and around the buses, says spokesperson Louis Svehla.

A no-idling policy would reduce diesel exhaust and save gas and money, says Dr. Baker. Other steps are more costly, such as buying new buses or retrofitting the old fleet with a particle scrubber, which can cost up to $10,000 per bus.

"We're trying to give parents some knowledge they may not have had about their children's safety and how it can be addressed now," says Dr. Baker. "Parents may think about fights on the bus, but not necessarily what their child is breathing at the bus stop."

By Paula Hinely

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