Opinion: Electric School Buses Are a Win for Kids’ Health, the Environment, and Our Community
There’s no safe level of exposure to diesel fumes for children, and yet our kids spend hours each week breathing fumes on diesel buses
Amidst last year's many startling headlines, you may have missed this one: "In Landmark Ruling, Air Pollution Recorded as a Cause of Death."
Nine-year-old Ella struggled to breathe. She was hospitalized for asthma almost 30 times before her death of acute respiratory failure in 2013. Ella's lung function was not worsened by allergies or infections; instead, her autopsy showed extensive lung damage tied directly to inhalation of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, which filled the air in her southeast London neighborhood.
She's not the only victim; an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year are caused by air pollution. The nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that damaged Ella's lungs are well-known threats to child health. Produced by diesel engines and industrial activities, these pollutants can stunt lung growth and decrease lung function even in healthy children. For all kids with asthma, even those with mild to moderate asthma, pollution aggravates symptoms and increases urgent visits for severe flare-ups. Beyond the respiratory system, air pollution impairs neurological development and causes additional cancer deaths. New data even suggests negative impacts on cognition; studies indicate that reducing diesel emissions can improve academic performance in children.
Ironically, an important source of these toxic substances in our Central Texas neighborhoods are the very buses we use to send our kids to school. Pre-pandemic, about one in four AISD students rode the bus to school, and studies show these children breathe four times the amount of diesel fumes inhaled by children who ride in private vehicles. As children from low-income families are more likely to rely on school buses for transportation, disparities in diesel fume exposure exacerbate existing health inequities.
Considering there's no safe level of diesel fumes for children, the amount of exposure bus riders get is striking: A single child who rides half an hour to and from school each weekday will spend a total of 180 hours per school year on the bus, breathing fumes.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to diesel buses that reduces tailpipe emissions to zero: electric school buses. Some Texas school districts are already pursuing electric bus pilot programs. Everman ISD, located just southeast of Ft. Worth, recently added three electric buses to their fleet. Citing student health, climate concerns, and cost savings, that district foresees a "bright future ahead for cleaner transportation in the state of Texas." Austin ISD is currently exploring a pilot program of its own, with support from the Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance, or TxETRA, and Environment Texas.
Electric school buses are better for our children's health, our air quality, and our schools' budgets. According to research published last month, EVs are cheaper to run and maintain on average than comparable gas-powered vehicles.
Momentum is building for electric school buses in Texas, but a lack of funding solutions may unnecessarily delay progress. The Biden administration has pledged that all American school buses will be zero-emission by 2030, but we can accelerate this timeline for Texas children if local investors step up and partner with our local and state governments to fund electric school bus programs. Recently, school board members, superintendents, and transportation directors from across Texas asked Gov. Abbott to provide state funding to help districts purchase electric buses.
As the future home of Tesla, Volcon, and other EV manufacturers, Austin was recently hailed as the "electric vehicle capital of the world." Volcon, a producer of off-road electric vehicles, recently announced it will be opening a facility in Central Texas, and Tesla is expected to bring 5,000 jobs to the area with its new billion-dollar gigafactory.
Tesla and other large corporations in Austin, like Google and Amazon, say tackling climate change is a strategic priority; funding this project could help them demonstrate that commitment locally.
Parents shouldn't have to bury their children to inspire action. If Austin is destined to become the electric vehicle capital of the world, let's harness that innovative spirit and demand action on behalf of our kids. We need funding for electric school buses, so that we – and our children – can breathe easier.
Mary Beth Bennett sits on the board of Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility and is a mom of three AISD elementary students. Mary Beth, Madeline Hanes, and Sanjana Ravi are all students at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin and are active in its Environmental Health Interest Group.