Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Reducing school bus emissions

School bus fumesThis month you'll see all sorts of posts regarding back-to-school issues and environmentalism. I'm sure many of you are already sending your kids off to school with eco-friendly school supplies and healthy, organic lunches packaged in reusable containers. Additionally, many school districts are mostly on top of issues regarding lead in the drinking water of old school buildings and asbestos related problems.

But what about the enormous health and environmental impact of those yellow school buses? Over 99% of the U.S.'s 600,000 school buses run on diesel fuel, placing millions of children at risk each day.

Few districts seem to be doing anything regarding the inherent dangers of diesel school bus emissions. Regardless of whether or not you have kids in school this is a community issue and one that affects everyone living in it. Because the exhaust just doesn't harm kids but also other citizens that breathe it in. People with asthma or other lung issues are particularly susceptible to increased air pollution.

It's that time of year where the school buses are out in force, but it's also a good time to actually try to do something about it. Not all school districts have the money or the resources to switch to using biodiesel, but the more we ask the more they will listen. I'm sure all the grease being used in the school kitchens for those extremely healthy school lunches could be used for waste vegetable oil driven school buses. And, at the very least, you can request that the bus drivers do not idle and that they implement an idling reduction program.

EPA schoolbus programSo, where do you start? If it feels like one little voice isn't going to affect much change then getting parents together to demand clean school buses is one way to go. Discuss the issue with other parents while you are waiting to pick up your kids, at PTA meetings or even sending out information to your child's classroom email list.

Don't know what to say once you get organized? Well, here's a sample letter with some statistics for you to use to make your case. If you want to send it to your school district or local representatives, just replace the [XX] with the appropriate information for your region.

Dear Superintendent of Public Instruction,

As a parent and citizen of [XX], I am deeply concerned of the impact that [XX] city school buses have on the health of not only the children riders and bus drivers, but on the community as a whole. School bus emissions have been directly linked to problems such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, retarded lung development, and increased emergency room visits for respiratory illnesses. After long-term exposure, diesel exhaust can cause cancer.

Aside from the health issues resulting from school bus emissions, diesel exhaust also contains pollutants that contribute to ozone formation, smog, acid rain, and global climate change.

There are a number of changes that can be employed to reduce the amount of exhaust emitted from diesel school buses. From the obvious switchover to alternative fuel types such as biodiesel to policies reducing idling and technologies like diesel particulate traps and filters, it is imperative that our community look to reducing this very significant health and environmental threat.

Based on a 2001 study, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that, "for every one million children riding the school bus for 1 or 2 hours each day during the school year, 23 to 46 children may eventually develop cancer from the excess diesel exhaust they inhale on their way to and from school."

Please help protect our children and community by looking into making changes to the district's fleet of school buses. If you would like to learn more about the issues surrounding school bus diesel emissions as well as information regarding reducing idling and retrofitting school buses, please refer to the US EPA website ( If steps are being made to reduce diesel emissions, I would like to be informed.

Thanks in advance for your consideration,

John Smith
123 Main Street
Anytown, ST 12345

So, as your kids head back to school, take a moment out of your day to help address this very large problem so we can all breathe easier.


Anonymous said...

As a school teacher, I can attest to the power of parent input. Believe it or not, letters from concerned parents would have a much greater impact in many districts than feedback from teachers. All of us in education are usually so overwhelmed that we don't have the time to come up with simple solutions--like your brilliant idea about cafeteria cooking oil and biodiesel. Not only would our school sponsored transportation be eco-friendlier, the air we breathe on bus duty would smell like french fries instead of diesel fumes!

mudnessa said...

I hate the sight, smell, and sound of yellow school buses. I always wondered why the city switched to "greener" buses but the schools still have the same yellow school buses I was riding years ago. With the major money issues there are with schools in my area I doubt there is much to be done right now on that front. Also not being a parent I am not involved or educated at all in that area.

Heather said...

Does biodiesel reduce emissions of the particulates that cause asthma, respiratory illness etc.? Not idling would, I'm sure, but I don't see why biodiesel would. It reduces carbon emissions because it is just releasing into the atmosphere the carbon the plants absorbed, rather than the carbon locked up in the ground, but I didn't know that it burned more cleanly. I would be interested to know more about this.

Burbanmom said...

thanks for the sample letter, Crunchy! Will send one out to our school today!

M said...

Sample letter is a great idea!

Thanks so much!

jewishfarmer said...

I think this is a good idea if you emphasize heavily the WASTE VEGETABLE OIL part - but my fear is that cities and towns are likely to mostly hear "use biodiesel" and start purchasing commercial soy biodiesel, which is not better for you, causes asthma and health consequences, and produces more net global warming gasses than diesel fuel does.

Honestly, the next step up would be to work on reopening and rebuilding neighborhood schools. Get your kids off the bus entirely - and let them walk or bike (and you with them for young kids) to local schools, instead of big regional ones. As busing becomes a prohibitive cost for an increasingly large number of school districts, this may need to happen anyway - so start the ball rolling.


Diane MacEachern said...

Don't miss the campaign by Environmental Defense to reduce school bus pollution. You can get more info at

Lynnet said...

I agree with Sharon about biodiesel.

Biodiesel is raising the cost of soy products for poor people around the world, just like ethanol is doing for corn. Also, tropical forests are being cut down for oil palm plantations for biodiesel, causing more global warming and habitat destruction.

There really is not enough waste vegetable oil to power school buses in any particular area.

I like the idea of neighborhood schools better. Also, school buses out here stop at practically every house so the kiddies won't have to walk more than 100 feet. And their mothers have brought the SUVs up to take them back home a block away down the side street. Sometimes there is a row of 5 SUVs idling to pick up 5 kids. How much sense does that make?

There is really a lot that can be done on this subject, but I think biodiesel is not it.

Alexandra said...

Crunchy, I love that you not only make all of us aware of environmental issues, but that you also provide us with ways to act. I don't have children yet, but I will be sending a letter to the superintendent anyhow. You also got me thinking about how I will handle the "get the kids to school" issue when it arises. Though I have a car, right now I live in Watertown, MA, a suburb of Boston, where I can walk just about everywhere AND, if I want to take a bus into the city, all buses are still electric/cable car which is not so bad environmentally AND caters to my romantic side. So, would I walk my kids to school or take the electric bus instead or... Anyway, thanks for jump-starting my brain this morning ;-)

Crunchy Chicken said...

I agree that biodiesel isn't always the best choice, but there are other options out there for obtaining waste vegetable oil. It wouldn't suffice for everyone but even if it replaces some of the diesel it's better than nothing.

Most likely school districts would only be able to afford doing bus retrofitting to add in diesel particulate traps and filters so concentrating on that would be good.

It's all fine and dandy to push neighborhood schools but in urban areas that's not always the best option particularly when you are dealing with offering students an opportunity to attend schools in wealthier areas of the city where the schools are oftentimes better than their closest school.

Lyndsay said...

Please forgive my ignorance, but isn't one diesel school bus carrying at least 50-60 kids to school at a time WAY better than 50 -60 individual cars doing the exact same thing???

I understand that it would be great to move to biodiesel, and I totally support that, but I think it should also be made clear that it is much more environmentally friendly to send your kids to school on the bus than it is to drive them there yourself - for the exact same reason that you should use mass transit to get to work.

Unknown said...

About a week ago this topic came up on Burban Mom's list serve. I posted a comment there that I'll repost here, because the points are valid. I'd also like to caution that carpooling or driving your own children is not a better alternative for taking the bus because the seating capacity of the bus is about 60 kids as compared to what you can hold in your car. The congestion and extra emissions from all the extra cars would be at least as bad or possibly worse than the few busses on the road. As to using biodiesel, B-20 can be used without a retrofit, but it's only 20% bio - Full strength Bio is not recommended for cold climates. Heck even regular deisel congeals in less than 30 degree weather - that's why the busses have to plugged in at night. Here's the repost:

As a school bus driver I have two caveats to the idle free zone. We have an idle free zone at the elementary school I drive for and we live in New England where temps can dip well below zero. We have major stalling issues in the winter and regularly have to deboard the children while a new bus is delivered (from 1/2 hr away). It also causes ice in the brake lines, which again requires another bus sent in for replacement. On the very cold days it is simply not worth turning the bus off. Any day above 30 though, all busses should be off.

The other comment is in regards to busses with those stupid "no-one left behind" alarms on them. These require the driver to walk to the rear of the bus and open the emergency door immediately after turning the bus off. The hope is that when the driver is walking back he/she'll notice a sleeping child. In practice, when a school has both these kinds of busses AND a "no one left behind" alarm, the bus driver has to wade through a mass of children to get to the alarm before it goes off. Let me just say that the one time I had to borrow one of these busses I didn't make it there in time. There needs to be an upgrade to these stupid alarms (or we should be allowed to sedate the children) in order for the alarm and the no idle zone to work compatibly.

Sharlene said...

It seems to me if all the city buses around here can run on cleaner fuels such as natural gas or biodiesel then there is no reason why the school buses can't too. The town I grew up in didn't really put school buses to use except for special needs children so I never had the experience of riding the bus to school. What about an electric school bus? They could all sit on their chargers at night or in between the morning pickup and afternoon drop off.

Greenpa said...

Good stuff and discussions; and wonderful to have input from a real driver! Yay all.

A question out of nowhere- how about outfitting the gas buses to run on natural gas? (I have no idea of the realities or needs- just- it's an option getting more mention these days, and buses certainly have room for the bulkier tanks.) The fuel is definitely cheaper, and cleaner- cost of outfitting is a problem, though. Bake sale? :-)

We're about to send Smidgen to pre-school. She's tremendously excited. We're miles out in the country- and she's way too young for the bus (which doesn't serve preschoolers here anyway).

We were about to give it up; when a neighbor volunteered to share the driving with us. That made it possible- plus, an opportunity for neighbor building; good stuff all around. They've got twin girls just Smidgen's age (who she now calls "MY twins.") - they'll drive one day; we'll drive one day; makes it possible.

Robj98168 said...

You know, when I worked in the schools oh 20plus years ago, I honestly never saw that much grease in the kitchen. Nothing was deeped fried. But that is a small issue- there is no reason why Micky D's and rest couldn't be asked to donate their waste oil- or should I say waste oil.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Greenpa - I don't know about the retrofitting to natural gas, but you can buy new ones (natural gas buses) for a mere $30 - $40k.

I don't know how that compares to the cost of a new diesel bus, but going forward schools have to abide by a federal mandate to provide cleaner buses. It's the older ones that are the issue.

So Smidgen is going to preschool this year? Exciting!

Unknown said...

I think there's a huge, underutilized potential in some areas for getting students onto existing public transit rather than maintaining a fleet of dirty vehicles for kids only.

My daughter takes a county bus to/from her school which is 9 miles away. I started this a few years ago and now a bunch of neighbors with kids in that school have joined in, too. The bus stop is a bit over a mile from home, and a parent always walks with them, so we get our morning/afternoon exercise to boot!

Unknown said...

I'm writing my letters today! Thanks!

lauren said...

I guess Rob beat me to the punch, but saying there is waste vegetable oil in a school cafeteria presumes there is real cooking going on there.

Both schools I've taught at, cafeteria food consisted of a freezer and warmers.

That said, I understand and support the spirit of the post.

On another school note, if you are in the Bay Area, I highly recommend looking into Revolution Foods as a healthy alternative to school lunches. My school is in the 2nd year contracting out with them, and they are great!

jewishfarmer said...

Crunch - I simply don't agree that there's enough WVO to power a substantial number of buses in many areas - that might well be a good choice for urban schools where, as you say, there are regional class issues. It might be even better to concentrate our efforts on adapting the funding system. But for most suburban and rural districts, there isn't enough WVO around - and it doesn't work during the winter. I think this is one of those proposals that is useful in some areas, and not useful in others.

The larger issue is going to be the ability that increasingly poor school districts facing substantial declines in property taxes (as people reassess to reflect the rapidly decreasing values of their homes) are going to have to heat and transport students at all - we're likely to see a crisis in that area within a matter of a few years - which means that energy intensive large regional schools are either going to continue, but with far fewer resources and parents who can afford it driving, while others don't send their kids to school at all - or we're going to create neighborhood alternatives. Getting *good* neighborhood alternatives into urban areas is, despite the magnitude of the problem, probably an easier project than keeping public education going in many areas at all without them - and IMHO, investing resources should go to the things that gets us the most return in the long term. Relying on WVO is a short term, partial solution for less than half the US - not without its uses in some places, but IMHO, comparatively low on the priority list compared to dealing with education's other coming problems.


TheNormalMiddle said...

My husband works for the largest school bus builder in the world. Hybrid buses are available, but as you probably guessed, they are over double the price of a regular school bus.

With gas prices soaring, school districts are seeing their transportation bills rise and rise. Unfortunately they are not purchasing new buses like they should, because all their budget is going to fuel alone.

My husband has been laid off more than he has been working since Thanksgiving of last year. I'd love to see these school systems order some hybrids and newer buses for my own personal gain too!

The option is out there, but it is so horrifically expensive, most school systems are not buying into it.

EHS Director said...

Information to pass along

The California Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District are co-sponsoring a 3-day course on the successful application of diesel particulate filter systems to diesel engines. The course will also cover various research into ultrafine particles (less than 0.1 micron in diameter) in ambient air and the health risks they pose along with coarse particles (PM10) or fine particles
(PM2.5). For additional information, please go to:

Announcement and Presentation can be viewed at: