Healthy Schools

Future cloudy for reducing emissions

More than 2,000 aging Colorado school buses have been retrofitted over the past eight years to limit diesel exhaust emissions, which are known to worsen asthma and other lung ailments, especially in children.

At up to $175,000 per bus, on average, cash-strapped school districts have been slow to replace aging buses with newer, less-polluting models.
At up to $175,000 per bus, cash-strapped school districts have been slow to replace aging buses with newer, less-polluting models.

But recently announced federal budget cutbacks have slashed spending for the Environmental Protection Program’s Clean Diesel Program, which pays for the retrofits.

And for every Colorado school bus that has been retrofitted so far, officials estimate there’s at least one more that hasn’t been but ought to be.

Should the federal funding not be restored, officials aren’t sure what will become of state plans to retrofit the remaining buses. It’s possible that other funding sources could be found but there are no guarantees.

“We’ll be retrofitting buses at least through Sept. 30 and probably beyond,” said Lisa Silva, air quality planner for the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and manager of the Clean Diesel Program for the state.

“We’ve applied for another grant, which could go through 2012. We just have to wait and see what happens after this fiscal year.”

‘Clean Diesel’ retrofitted 2,000 buses

The state-run Clean Diesel Program, launched in 2006, targets school districts outside the metro area. It has retrofitted about 1,000 buses in Pueblo, El Paso, Garfield, Rio Blanco and Weld counties, at a cost of about $3.4 million.

A threat to children
“Students could be breathing this in twice a day, five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years.”
— Greg Davis, EPA

In Denver and its suburbs, a similar program is administered through the Regional Air Quality Council. Launched in 2003, RAQC has retrofitted about 1,000 buses in the seven-county metro area, at a cost of about $3.5 million.

Later this year, buses in Gunnison, Cotopaxi, Dolores Re-2 and Bayfield school districts are due for retrofits but at least a dozen other school districts have requested assistance. Silva estimates there may be 3,000 buses still running on Colorado roads that are needlessly belching toxins into the air – and likely into the lungs of their passengers.

“Researchers at National Jewish tell us they see a lot more asthma attacks that are very likely induced by school bus rides on diesel school buses that are not retrofitted,” Silva said. “That’s an immediate effect. Long-term, there have been studies that show exposure to mobile source air toxins can do permanent damage to the lungs by the time a child is 18.”

Rural riders particularly at risk

The problem is particularly acute in the state’s rural areas, where students may spend upwards of two to three hours a day on board buses. That doesn’t count time spent traveling to and from sporting events, which can add additional hours of bus travel.

Buses by the numbers
  • Nationwide, an estimated 24 million children ride school buses every day.
  • Almost 400,000 diesel school buses are in use – their average age is 10 years old.
  • More than 75,000 buses have been on the road since before 1990.
  • 20-year-old buses are estimated to emit six times the number of toxic particles as buses built before 2004 – and as much as 60 times more than buses built since 2007.
  • But at a cost of $125,000 to $175,000 per bus, school districts are slow to replace old buses with new ones.

The emissions seep in through the doors opening and closing at stops, but also come in from under the hood. The exposure to these toxins is greatest inside the school buses, but non-riders can be exposed while waiting with children at bus stops or stopping behind an idling bus.

Children are at greater risk than adults because their lungs are smaller and because their respiration rate is faster. While adults average 12 to18 breaths per minute, young children may inhale 20 to 40 times per minute. And with each breath they could be inhaling carbon, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals found in diesel exhaust fumes.

“Students could be breathing this in twice a day, five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years,” said Greg Davis, Mobile Sources Program Manager for the EPA in Denver, which oversees the Clean Diesel grants. “With each $1 you put into reducing pollutants, you get more than $1 back in reduced health care costs.”

Buses built before 2007 – the year emission control devices became standard on new buses – are eligible for the retrofits, which involve up to three pieces of equipment:

  • Diesel oxidation catalysts, which replace the existing bus mufflers and which decrease tailpipe emissions by 50 percent for hydrocarbons and 20 percent of particulate matter.
  • Crankcase filtration units, which collect burnt oil particles and other emissions that sweep in from under the hood, and reduce them by 95 percent.
  • Engine pre-heaters, small motors that reduce idling by reducing the time buses need to warm up in the morning. Pre-heaters can save 1 gallon per bus per day of diesel fuel.

The cost to retrofit a bus with all three pieces of equipment averages about $3,500, though not all buses have received all three.

Metro districts further along than rest of state

In the Denver metro area, nearly all eligible buses have been retrofitted to reduce tailpipe emissions and many have been fitted with the engine pre-heaters. But fewer have received the crankcase filtration units.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Luke Howe-Kerr, a student at Pueblo's Cedar Ridge Elementary School, watches while technician John Schmidt works to retrofit a Pueblo District 70 school bus. EPA photo.

“Done is relative,” said Steve McCannon, mobile sources program manager for RAQC. “The work will never be done. But we’ve definitely made more progress in the metro area than in the rest of the state.”

He said a lot of metro area school districts have also moved to install GPS systems on their buses. His office has provided 350 of those.

“The benefits to GPS are great. The first piece is knowing where the buses are. We can tell what buses are out there and not moving. We can see if a bus driver is wasting money just sitting in a parking lot. We can also do route optimization,” McCannon said.

The CDPHE and RAQC programs have excelled at getting federal funds, particularly federal stimulus dollars, to pay for these programs. But in February, President Obama’s proposed budget eliminated funding for the Clean Diesel Program, which has proven hugely popular and has bipartisan support.

Nationwide, an estimated 24 million children ride school buses every day and almost 400,000 diesel school buses are in use. Their average age is 10 years old, and more than 75,000 have been on the road since before 1990. Twenty-year-old buses are estimated to emit six times the number of toxic particles that buses built since 2004 emit, and as much as 60 times more than buses built since 2007. But at a cost of $125,000 to $175,000 per bus, on average, cash-strapped school districts are slow to replace old buses with new ones.

That’s why the retrofitting program has been so popular: Relatively speaking, it’s an expensive way to dramatically curb emissions without buying a whole new bus.

“This seems like kind of a no-brainer,” said Lauri Smock, transportation coordinator for the Gunnison Watershed School District, which has been waiting for two years for the state to retrofit its 19 buses.

“We’ve been trying, unless it’s stupid cold, to turn our buses off when they get to the schools and not keep them idling, because schools say they know when buses pull up because they can smell the fumes. The other thing is, in the winter we have our buses plugged in all the time,” she said.

“Those are big engines that have to stay warm. We’re using a lot of money on electricity keeping the buses warm so they’ll start when it’s 20 below outside. But with the pre-heater, it’s timed, it will come on a couple of hours before the driver gets there in the morning and the driver won’t have to plug the bus in, so it will cost us less. It will be just a wonderful program for us.”

GPS tracking touted for bus use

In the Adams County Five Star School District, all 160 buses are now equipped with the latest emissions equipment.

For more information

Transportation director David Anderson said that district is exploring all the ways in which even fancier bells and whistles – like GPS – can be used to curb pollution and boost fuel efficiency.

“GPS has been an amazing tool,” Anderson said. “We know where every bus is at a given moment. I can tell you how long the engine has been running, how long it’s been idling. I never thought it would be as wonderful as it is. At my fingertips, I get instant reports if a vehicle has been idling more than 10 minutes. Think how much fuel that can save.”

Cost to install GPS is $600 per bus. Anderson said he recouped the cost within the first year.

Last year, the district also installed card readers on all its buses, which automatically track when individual students get on and get off. That information helps district officials keep track of ridership, and lets them reconfigure bus routes to avoid empty seats and increase fuel economy.

It also is a student safety tool.

“I don’t think a day goes by when we don’t have a lost elementary kid,” Anderson said. “They get on the wrong bus or get off at the wrong stop. The little ones get easily disoriented. Now, if a first-grader gets lost, I can tell he got off at 1st and Main at 3:20. In the past, it was just a guess. Now I have true documentation that’s instantaneous.”

How are you feeling?

With plan to focus on teen health, Adams 12 school district opens new clinic

PHOTO: Jasleen_kaur/Creative Commons

The Adams 12 school district, Colorado’s sixth-largest, will open its first school-based health clinic this fall at Thornton High School.

The new clinic will offer routine physicals, sick care and mental health counseling to the 1,675 students at Thornton High as well as another 1,000 students who take classes at the district’s career and technical education center on the same campus.

By providing a convenient source of health care, particularly for low-income students, advocates say school-based health centers help prevent and address health problems that can impede learning.

Statewide, the number of school-based health centers has grown over the last decade — from 40 in 2007 to 59 this fall.

Despite the overall upward trend, not all school-based health centers survive. For example, the clinic at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, a high poverty school in the Jeffco district, closed its doors last spring.

A district official there said the nonprofit organization providing the health services, which were available to Jefferson students and other local residents, decided to depart because district security logistics made it difficult to keep the clinic open during evening and weekend hours.

In Adams 12, planning for the new clinic began in 2015. A district committee chose Thornton High to house the health center because of the high level of poverty in that area and because the campus, which also houses the Bollman Technical Education Center, serves the largest number of high school students in the district.

District spokesman Kevin Denke said the decision to focus on a teenage population stems from the fact that adolescents tend to see doctors less often than younger students and may be starting to engage in risky behaviors, such as sexual activity, alcohol use or drug use.

The neighboring Boulder Valley school district also has a school-based health clinic in the works, though it’s not expected to open until the fall of 2019. That clinic, the district’s first, will be located at the Arapahoe Campus, which houses Arapahoe Ridge High School and the district’s career and technical education center.

District officials said the clinic was originally slated to open earlier, but the launch was pushed back to align with a planned remodel of the career and technical education space.

In the meantime, the district will expand a dental care program that’s gradually ramped up at the Arapahoe Campus. Begun four years ago as a basic screening program that referred kids with cavities and other problems to area dentists, the program last year provided cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants to 42 students at Arapahoe Ridge and two other district high schools.

This year, the program will offer the same services, plus treatment for minor cavities, to students from all district high schools. The goal is to serve 250 students by the end of the year.

Fighting hunger

No more cheese sandwiches: Denver restores hot lunches for students in debt

Students at Denver's Fairmont ECE-8 have a choice of fruits and vegetables for lunch. (Denver Post file photo)

Denver students will start the year off with lunch debts paid off and a new promise that falling behind on lunch payments will not mean a cold “alternative” meal.

The district announced the change this week.

“We will feed every kid, every day,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg wrote. “We know hungry kids aren’t the best learners.”

In some districts, including DPS, students who fall behind on lunch payments may be given alternative meals such as a cheese sandwich, or graham crackers and milk.

Boasberg said all kids will get regular hot-lunch options while payment issues are resolved and the district works on a long-term strategy.

In the last school year, Denver students had accumulated a balance of more than $13,000. The debt would be higher if some schools had not set aside money to help students.

According to the district, schools paid for more than 37,700 meals during the 2016-17 year.

The district said that donations raised by students through a nonprofit called KidsGiving365, and by Shift Workspaces, founded by Grant Barnhill, a parent of an incoming DPS student, will cover all the outstanding lunch debt of students in the district.

In DPS, all students receive free breakfast. Students who qualify for free lunch based on family income do not make payments and do not accrue debt.

For 2017-18, a family of four must earn less than $31,980 to qualify for free lunch, or less than $45,510 to qualify for a reduced price lunch.

The announcement from DPS reminds families that the application for free or discounted lunch can be submitted throughout the year, and that students are eligible regardless of immigration status.