This op-ed, co-written by Anne Mellinger-Birdsong, pediatrician and environmental public health specialist with Mothers & Others For Clean Air, and Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, originally appeared in Georgia Recorder on July 5, 2021.
After a school year like no other, Georgia’s students are well into their summer vacations. The diesel school buses that carry nearly half of America’s students sit idle, giving children and communities a break from breathing the unhealthy air pollution these buses spread. There’s substantial evidence that breathing diesel fumes puts children and their still-developing bodies at risk for damaged lungs, asthma and other respiratory diseases, cognitive impairment, and increased hospitalizations. It also increases their lifetime risk of developing lung and other cancers.
However, bold leadership by Congress this year could ensure that an infrastructure bill includes funding to accelerate the transition of school bus fleets to clean electric buses. This would ensure cleaner air for our students and communities. Here’s why it matters to all of us:
It’s well documented that air pollution harms health, especially children’s health. Air pollution affects children from infancy through the teen years. It causes asthma attacks and increases their risk of developing asthma. It increases risk for viral illnesses such as influenza and COVID-19. It damages children’s and teens’ lung growth so they end up with lungs 10% smaller, setting them up for a lifetime of health problems. Air pollution also impairs learning at school, with lower test scores and more behavioral incidents. Diesel buses add to the air pollution levels in a city, affecting everyone’s health.
Studies show that children riding inside diesel school buses are exposed to up to four times the level of diesel exhaust as someone riding in a car ahead of the bus. The health implications for children are troubling, but school bus exhaust harms everyone in the community. And air pollution does not affect all people equally. Black and brown communities suffer first and worst from transportation pollution, because our country built highways, railyards, and trucking depots in or near their neighborhoods. This environmental racism increases exposure to air pollution and the risks of disease and early death.
But there is hope. Electric school buses are available and produce no tailpipe emissions. This means students and their communities can be served without harmful pollution. Electric buses are less polluting than diesel buses, even though some of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels. As the electricity grid gets cleaner, electric school buses will too. Switching from diesel to electric school buses could avoid about 5.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year according to the US Public Interest Research Group.
Health benefits aren’t the only ones Georgians will see from converting school bus fleets. Macon-based Blue Bird Corp. is an industry innovator creating hundreds of new jobs producing electric buses. In addition to jobs and investments in our communities, school district budgets will ultimately benefit from electric school buses’ lower maintenance costs and reduced fueling costs.
Despite numerous advantages for deploying electric school buses, purchasing them may pose a challenge for some of Georgia’s school districts that continue to face financial stress, specifically while addressing student transportation. So to help schools purchase these buses, Congress can support the Clean Commute for Kids Act, cosponsored by Georgia’s U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, which proposes to authorize $25 billion over the next 10 years for the Environmental Protection Agency, with assistance from the Department of Energy, to provide grants to replace existing buses with clean, zero-emission buses. Notably, 40% of this funding would go toward replacing school buses serving communities that have been hardest hit by the adverse impacts of climate change, including communities of color and rural communities. A recent study found that reducing school bus air pollution improved test scores as much as hiring a teacher with five years experience or having smaller class sizes, so assisting financially stressed school districts with EV school bus funding helps achieve their purpose of educating students.
Electrifying school buses and other bus fleets is just one form of electrifying transportation, with more opportunities for Georgia to lead the way. In May, Heliox, a Netherlands-based company that makes fast-charging systems for electric vehicles, announced Atlanta as its North American headquarters. South Korean company SK Innovation has already begun construction on a $2.6 billion manufacturing facility in Commerce, expected to employ up to 2,600 people manufacturing electric vehicle batteries. With additional state and federal policies to encourage the transition to electric transportation, we would expect to see more manufacturing investments and jobs created, as well as continued improvements in public health from cleaner vehicles.
As a pediatrician who specializes in air pollution, climate, and environmental health and as an advocate researching clean energy, we know that electrifying school buses is a win-win-win for Georgia: less air pollution, improved health, reduced fuel and maintenance budgets, and more well-paying jobs.
As we approach the end of one public health crisis caused by COVID-19, let’s not ignore another public health crisis caused by transportation pollution. Instead let’s urge Congress, state leaders, and our school districts to invest in our children and economy and begin the transition to electric school buses.
Anne Mellinger-Birdsong is a pediatrician and environmental public health specialist who lives in Dekalb County. She has worked at federal, state, and county health agencies, the American Lung Association, and Mothers & Others For Clean Air.
Jennifer Rennicks is a former Senior Director of Policy & Communications for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.