Turn off your car, children are breathing!

Have you given any thought to how cars magically start when the ignition key is turned? The car engine is burning gasoline, which gives it the ability to start and run. Whenever a moving or idling car is burning gasoline, it releases vehicle emissions into the surrounding air which are inhaled by anyone who is in the vicinity. The main pollutants in vehicle emissions are carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), hydrocarbons (HC), particulate matter (PM), hydroflourocarbons (HFC), and methane (CH4). Children breathe in this mixture when cars idle outside of schools.

It can be very tempting to leave the car running while dropping off or picking up children at school, especially during the winter. After all, it’s only going to take a few minutes, right? Many parents idle their cars because they want to keep their children warm and safe, but this may actually be harming them because it exposes them to car emissions. Exposures are further compounded by the presence of idling school buses and nearby highways and roads.

The Hazards of Idling Cars

We have long known that residing in areas near high vehicle emissions, such as neighborhoods located near highways or large roads, has been associated with a higher incidence of asthma and asthma flare-ups. A nationwide survey confirmed this, finding that up to 44% of urban public schools that were located within 400 meters of an interstate or highway had increased levels of traffic-related air pollution (TRAP). How does this air pollution affect  kids who spend a considerable amount of time in or around schools?

Breathing in exhaust fumes can lead to exacerbations of existing lung problems like asthma and allergies. Exposure to TRAP has also been associated with cardiovascular disease and elevated mortality in affected neighborhoods. Schools certainly experience high levels of car and bus traffic, including idling cars. It would be a Herculean task to reduce TRAP from interstates and highways, but we can definitely target schools, where limiting vehicle emissions is much more doable. Cooperation between the community and the school can lead to education of parents and bus drivers about the hazards of idling.

Let’s look at the results from the Cincinnati Anti-Idling Campaign which aimed to improve air quality around schools. A study conducted at participating schools evaluated four public schools that participated in the campaign. Air monitoring results showed a substantial reduction in particulate matter and elemental carbon concentrations around the schools after participation in the campaign.

Anti-idling campaigns show that it’s possible to improve the air quality around schools. We now know what a community can do when it partners with the school system and local environmental groups to improve our children’s health and environment.

Getting involved

Now that you have seen what can be accomplished, it is time to get involved. We all want to keep our kids healthy. This is important for everyone, not just parents, because we all bear the financial toll when kids are sick. So if you want to help reduce the incidence of asthma in your children and community, get involved in an anti-idling campaign near you. Earth Day Network and Clear Air Campaign  are good websites to set you on your way to participating or even leading an anti-idling campaign at your schools.


Environ. Sci.:Processes Impacts, 2013, 15, 2030

UMTRI Transportation Research Institute University of Michigan: http://www.umtri.umich.edu/our-results/publications/emissions-co2-co-nox-hc-pm-hfc-134a-n2o-ch4-global-light-duty-vehicle

Cincinnati Anti-Idling Campaign – Cincinnati Public Schools:

Earth Day Network: http://www.earthday.org/about/

Clear Air Campaign: http://cleanaircampaign.org/

April 2016. This post was written by Marlen Ortega, 4th year Medical Student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. [edited by Susan Buchanan]


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