Philadelphia's children are, on average, twice as likely as kids around the nation to develop asthma. Statewide, about 28 percent of Pennsylvania schoolchildren missed days of school due to asthma symptoms, a recent Pennsylvania Department of Health report found. While there are many factors behind respiratory illnesses, one of them is considered to be diesel emissions from automobiles like buses, and a local environmental group is calling on transit agencies to shift away from all diesel-burning vehicles to create a better future for kids.
"Diesel isn't just smoke, as my daughters used to call it when they would hold their breath as they passed an idling bus or a truck on the street," said Mollie Michel, a member of Moms Clean Air Force who rallied outside Philadelphia City Hall on Thursday with PennEnvironment, who released a new report that calls on SEPTA and other urban transit agencies to convert their bus fleets to fully electric. "It is exhaust that also contains tiny particles of pollution that often include toxic metals and chemicals. These tiny particles can lodge deep in our lungs and they are small enough, just a fraction of the width of a human hair, that they can penetrate our lungs and go right into our bloodstream, causing even bigger problems."
Dirty air is a real problem of concern to Philly moms, and who turned out to support PennEnvironment's calls pressuring cities and transit agencies to bulk up their zero-emissions bus fleets.
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"There is no higher level of pollutants than when children are being let off or being taken into their school buses at the beginning and end of the day," said Robin Roberts, an activist with Parents United for Public Education. "Those buses are sitting around the school, they are idling all the time that they are there. If we can move to a place where we can help our children breathe better, live better, then I think that's something we should do."
Their call for conversion to full electric includes the School District of Philadelphia and it's estimated 1,500 diesel school buses. Jerry Roseman, director of environmental science for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' Union (PFT), said the union supports the conversion to all-electric buses.
"Does this thing cause a hazard? In this situation, the answer is an unqualified yes," Roseman said. "With diesel emissions, we're talking about cancers, respiratory diseases, and especially worsening of asthma."
SEPTA is due to get 25 zero-emissions, fully electric buses later this year. Obtained through a federal grant, it will make SEPTA's electric bus fleet the largest of any large East Coast city. SEPTA needed a federal grant to obtain the buses, which are still considered prohibitively expensive, although prices are going down. The city is also planning to get 525 new hybrid-electric buses, and by 2021, say 95 percent of their bus fleet will be hybrid-electric. But that's not enough for environmentalists at PennEnvironment and their supporters, who say each purchase of a diesel bus means a decision to keep an emissions-producing vehicle on the road for a decade or more.
"Any new diesel buses purchased now will continue polluting for years to come since transit and school buses have lifespans longer than a decade," PennEnvironment wrote in its report. "Considering all of America’s nearly 70,000 transit buses and 480,000 school buses will have to be replaced in the next 15 to 20 years, there is room for large-scale adoption of electric buses."
By the numbers
Tons of greenhouse gas that would be averted per year by SEPTA converting to fully electric buses
The equivalent number of cars taken off the road
Total number of SEPTA buses, 669 diesel and 747 hybrid-diesel