Idling cars can turn schools into air pollution hot spots

Idling cars can turn schools into air pollution hot spots

PORTLAND, Ore. -- You could be hurting your kids just by picking them up after school.

How? By not turning off your car while you're waiting.

Research shows idling can turn schools into air pollution hot spots, as parents gather in large numbers outside with engines running. You can't see the toxic exhaust, but children have to wait in it and walk through it to get home.

"They're a captive audience," said parent Lynne Dee Bricker. "And so they can't go anyplace else. They can't get away from it."

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality says on its website that the exhaust from cars and school buses can aggravate or cause asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia in kids, among other health problems, and children breathe in more air for their size than adults, so they may be affected more than the parents waiting to pick them up.

"The health evidence is so strong," said Chris Hagerbaumer, deputy director of the Oregon Environmental Council. "It tells us that traffic exhaust harms people's health and children in particular."

Oregon and Washington both passed laws to fix the problem of bus exhaust at schools by retrofitting or replacing many buses. Hagerbaumer said a study in Washington showed 30 percent fewer visits to the hospital by kids for asthma and bronchitis after a school district fixed its buses.

"That means this really works to clean up air for kids," said Hagerbaumer.

But the Oregon Environmental Council and the Oregon DEQ said fixing buses is not enough, because your car pollutes your child's air, too. 

"When many of us think about air pollution, we think about smokestacks on factories," said Hagerbaumer. "But it turns out we are the biggest contributor to air pollution in Oregon."

A school in Southwest Portland has taken steps to stop parents from idling. West Hills Christian School created the "Pollution Solution," asking parents to turn off their cars when picking up kids after school.

"We just turn off our cars," said parent Gloria Goebel. "Don't let them idle. Sit here and wait for the kiddos to come out."

Principal Al Stefan said a parent came to him with the idea, showed him the research and asked if the school could change.

"That just kind of hit me right in the gut," said Stefan. "I thought, we really want to be a place that helps kids, not hurting them."

The school also uses a number system to speed up the pick-up process after school, so parents spend less time in their cars and students spend less time near exhaust.

Bricker's 12-year-old daughter, Dee Anna, has asthma. She described her symptoms. "I'll get dizzy and start coughing," she said. "I'll get wheezy and so it will be hard for me to breathe."

But Dee Anna said she can tell a difference at her school. "I like the air because it smells and feels clean, versus other places that feel dirty," said Dee Anna.

The school encourages parents to bring blankets and dress warmly, so they don't have to keep the car on while waiting during the winter months.

"It's a small price to pay," said Goebel, as she waited in her car. "In the summer, we roll down our windows and get suntans. In the winter, we just bundle up a bit. Part of my comfort is keeping pollution under control."

Even at Dee Anna's school, however, some parents choose convenience over safety.

Hagerbaumer said some parents may have some misconceptions about idling. She said that if you're going to idle for more than ten seconds, it is better to turn your engine off, then on again. She said idling is harder on your engine and does not warm up your car well and you actually fill the inside of your own car with pollution, too.

"You reduce that hot spot of air pollution, you protect the kids, you protect your own health," said Hagerbaumer.

Marcia Danab with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said other states have laws to stop unnecessary idling. She said the issue is not currently a top priority for legislation in Oregon, though it is very important.

Parents, children and schools have resources to help reduce idling, even without legislation.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation will give schools signs reminding parents not to idle if the school requests it. PBOT will also provide brochures about the problems with idling to give to parents.

The Oregon Environmental Council has information about idling for kids, parents and schools on its website. The OEC created a lesson plan for children to study air pollution at their own schools. The French American International School in Portland is one of the schools that participated.

"We can make it happen," said Stefan. "It's not costing money.  It's saving money. You're not idling your car.  I just think it's a win-win for everyone."