Time is up for school buses making asthma a pain for black kids

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By Alexa Spencer | word in black

Credit: Mary Taylor/Pexels

(WIB) – Traditional yellow school buses – and their spitting exhaust pipes – aren’t making life easier for the seven million American children with asthma. Buses that emit diesel make things worse, says a mom and climate justice advocate.

Almeta E. Cooper, National Field Manager at Moms Clean Air Force, is on a mission to help school districts transition from diesel-emitting buses — which worsen chronic lung disease and cause cancer — to energy-powered buses electric.

Just a few years ago, black children were eight times more likely to die of asthma than white children. Could changing the way children are bused to school bring some relief?

In this Q&A with Word In Black, Cooper shares what’s happening federally to make the change and how you can get involved:

WORD IN BLACK: What made you realize that diesel-emitting school buses were harming children’s health? Have you noticed any changes in your own child’s health?

ALMETA E. COOPER: As someone working at the intersection of climate and health equity, tailpipe pollution is of deep concern. I work with families across the country living in areas where the air is unhealthy to breathe. Diesel pollution only exacerbates the problem of polluted air. Fortunately, my own daughter Elise did not have asthma as a child. However, I vividly remember the first time she rode an iconic yellow school bus to kindergarten. I had pinned a name badge on his sweater with his name and the name of his teacher. We were both excited. However, I had no idea at the time that the school bus ride exposed him to dirty diesel fuel pollution. Additionally, I have family and friends with children who suffer from asthma and on “code orange” days they are advised not to engage in active physical activity – and they should also avoid additional exposure to fumes in a school bus.

WIB: What negative health effects have you noticed with diesel-emission school buses? And what would be the positive health effects of electric school buses?

AEC: Known negative effects of diesel emissions include the fact that this pollutant is carcinogenic to humans. In addition, diesel emissions can harm a child’s development. Additionally, it aggravates asthma, the leading chronic disease among children in the United States. In contrast, electric school buses are powered by clean electric energy and emit no pollution or diesel emissions and are therefore the safest for our children and their bus drivers.

WIB: What are your hopes and vision for the future, as it relates to the health and safety of children and residents in the Atlanta area?

AEC: Atlanta and Fulton County regularly receive a failing grade from the American Lung Association in their annual State of the Air Report. When you combine poor air quality and notoriously bad circulation patterns, it’s a terrible outcome for children or anyone with respiratory illnesses.

The transportation sector is the largest contributor to air pollution nationwide. Unfortunately, African American children often live in neighborhoods close to freeways, and this pollution and dirty air exacerbates the impact of pollution on them.

My vision for the future is for exhaust pollution-free electric vehicles to become the standard for all vehicles on the road. This transition can help clean the air for our children and reduce climate-damaging carbon dioxide pollution at the same time. We need to build public and political will to transition to all electric vehicles — and now! The good news is that this technology is ready to roll.

WIB: Can you tell me about your work with Moms Clean Air Force and your involvement in the US school bus electrification process? How do you and the organization work to ensure the process is fair for school counties across the country?

AEC: Moms Clean Air Force is made up of over one million members who care deeply about the health of children. The moving stories and examples of our members inspire my daily advocacy. I am motivated to fight for clean air and protect the health of children because pollution from the transport sector has harmful effects on health. As a mom, a member of Clean Air Force Moms, and my community, I care deeply about environmental justice, especially the connection between climate change and health equity for our most vulnerable populations.

Climate change is a major contributor to the health crisis in African American communities – not in the distant future, but right now when severe heat waves regularly threaten public health, particularly attacking the elderly, pregnant women and low-income communities in Georgia and elsewhere. African Americans contribute 23% less to the negative impact of climate change, but bear 21% more damage than other racial groups.

Across the country, African American communities face hotter days (temperatures above 105 degrees Fahrenheit) than other communities. One study estimated that, on average, counties with more African Americans living in them had two to three more dangerously hot days per year. That number could increase 10 times by 2050. African Americans are twice as likely to die from dangerous heat than other groups.

Clean Air Force Moms is working to educate local, state, and federal elected officials about the importance of clean-powered electric school buses. We are raising this issue through public information opportunities such as the April 22 Earth Day event sponsored by 9 Georgia climate organizations, “Celebrate the Earth & Clean Buses for Kids” and a family gathering for the Day of the Earth of approximately 1000 people with free food, live music, garden games at Liberty Plaza on Saturday, April 23, 2022. http://bit.ly/3JkmDsR.

WIB: How important is the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and its $5 billion investment in clean school buses?

AEC: Moms Clean Air Force defended and celebrated the unprecedented $5 billion investment from the bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act passed in November 2021 to support electric school buses. The bipartisan infrastructure act is significant because it will provide up to $5 billion to local school districts to acquire electric school buses, as well as the charging stations and infrastructure needed to implement the conversion to electric school buses in clean energy. The Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will issue guidelines next week explaining how to access these funds.

Ahead of this announcement, Clean Air Force Moms encourages parents to prepare for this new funding for electric school buses.

Step One: Learn about electric school buses, learn about school transportation in your district, and contact your school district leaders to alert them to this upcoming opportunity.

Here are five resources parents can use to get started on the path to electric school buses:

1. APE: APE Clean School Bus Program will distribute up to $5 billion over the next 5 years for electric school buses. Learn more about their program and how to get this funding on the EPA website. Sign up for Clean School Bus program news, so you can get updates from the EPA on the funding program; rollout is scheduled for April 2022. Register for future webinars and learn from past events.

2. Alliance for Electric School Buses: the Alliance for Electric School Buses is a coalition of organizations, including Moms Clean Air Force, whose mission is to electrify the nation’s school bus fleet and prioritize the neediest school districts in the most polluted areas – which, like the shows the data, are proportionally low-income communities and communities of color – while creating well-paying careers in manufacturing and deployment. The Alliance has compiled several key elements resources for school districts and defenders.

3. World Resources Institute: The World Resources Institute (WRI) has a Electric School Bus Initiative which provides several valuable resources and supports technical assistance to schools. See their webinar series for a range of views and advice on electric school buses. This reportas of February 2022, shows where electric school buses are currently in use or on order, in every state nationwide.

4. CIEV: Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) is a non-profit organization that has experience implementing electric school bus programs. Their electric school bus resources include several fact sheets that can help school districts and advocates begin to transition to electric buses.

5. CALSTART: If you’re looking for a simple resource to share with your school district officials about electric school buses, check out this fact sheet from the nonprofit organization CALSTART: Get on the Bus: A 7-Step Checklist for School Districts to Transition to Electric School Buses.

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaboration of 10 black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.

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