The Kids on the Bus Go Cough, Cough, Cough

May 4, 2006

I recall the smell of after-school, the mad dash to the line of idling buses, the nervousness that I would board the wrong bus and be driven to god-knows-where, tracing the name of the bus company over and over again with my eyes…WAYNE. LAIDLAW. Worrying a duct-taped tear in the vinyl set with my fingers. Mostly I remember the stench of diesel, upstaging the smell of dirty rubber and Fritos.

But enough about me! Diesel exhaust is vile. It’s a killer, actually. You look at the zipcodes where the asthma rates are highest, and they tend to line the freeways that get the most big truck traffic. And then there are schoolbuses, where children are just bathing in the cancerous miasma.

The Environmental Law Foundation and Our Children’s Earth Foundation have filed a suit against Laidlaw, the bus company that ferries 10,000 San Francisco children to school and back, for violating Proposition 65, which requires businesses to post warnings when they are exposing people to chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects.

Diesel exhaust, a mixture of gases and particles, was listed as a carcinogen by the state in 1990. The suit said state studies have found that diesel exhaust accounts for 70 percent of the cancer risk that the average Californian faces from breathing pollutants, and can also contribute to asthma and other respiratory problems, particularly among children and the elderly. Some of the highest levels of exposure are in school buses…

One upside to climbing oil prices is that the price gap between diesel and biodiesel is closing. Biodiesel can be burned in old clunkers with a minimum of adaptation (we’re talkin’ switching out a few hoses).

This blog — by “grassroots proactive schoolbus driver” Donna Stinka M’Sculbusa — chronicles the conversion of a Santa Cruz-area school district’s fleet to biofuels.

What we need is school bus driver awareness – that literally, busdrivers have died and many have cancer and all of them risk their lives everyday. Drivers have been attempting for years to get PVUSD to recognize and solve the health hazards to their employees. It has taken a war, more stringent pollution laws, increased diesel prices, a hurricane, global warming, my research and a viable source of biodiesel and grant money in Pacific Biofuel, not a nod of the head by the schoolboard and a teenager’s class project.

If your kid takes the bus, or even just walks by the yellow dragons lined up tip to tail at the curb, this is an area where parental activism means ALOT. School districts here and there across the country are beginning to switch to using biodiesel. The transition can happen pretty quickly, whereas a company or district might take decades to shift their fleets to natural gas, due to the cost of buying new buses. There’s federal grant money out there to help your school district get started.