Let's Clean Up the Air Around Our Kids' Schools!

WHEN encourages decision makers from government, the private sector, academe and the community to come up with the ways and means to improve neigbourhood air quality. In this Air Quality Action Guide, we focus on vehicular emissions and air quality issues around schools. To download a copy of this pocket brochure, click here.

WHEN also works on other fronts to address air quality issues, such as the demand for Community-Right-to-Know by-law at the City of Toronto level.

Clean air is a basic right of every individual. Many busy cities in the world are on the threshold of a major air pollution crisis. We all breathe over 11,000 Litres of air each day. Children breathe more air per kilogram of body weight. Children’s bodies are still growing and their lungs are still developing. They spend a large part of their day in and around schools. Children are more susceptible to the health effects of air pollution than are adults and seniors.

It has been identified that improper vehicle inspection, poor vehicle maintenance and high sulphur content in diesel fuel are big contributors to air pollution. We have a responsibility to restore healthy air quality for all to breathe. This needs to be done as soon as possible. WHEN urges a concerted effort from all those involved in the hopes the air around schools can be made cleaner.

In the main, the air around our city schools has criteria pollutants such as particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM 10) and gases (CO, CO2, SO2, NOx, O3 and Pb) which negatively affect our health. The biggest concern currently is particulate emission, especially from diesel engines. Many heavy and light diesel-driven vehicles pass schools. Schools buses are also diesel-driven.

The fine particles PM2.5 penetrate the human respiratory organs and damage the respiratory tract when inhaled. Particulate matter PM2.5 is small (2.5 microns or less in the aerodynamic matter) enough to remain suspended as solid particles and liquid droplets in the air. PM 2.5 is the main pollutant of concern emitted from diesel-fuelled vehicular exhaust.

Colourless or black smoke from diesel-driven vehicles is very harmful to our health. Colorless carbon monoxide (CO) gas is emitted from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and interferes with the delivery of oxygen to the brain. Long-term exposure to high levels of CO can cause headaches, drowsiness, loss of equilibrium, cardiovascular symptoms, and decrease of visual perception.

High levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) can cause lung function loss. Ozone (O3) is a colourless and odourless gas. It is a major component of smog. Prolonged exposure to O3 gas increases respiratory illness, asthma and irritates the eyes. Children who are active outdoors during summer when O3 levels are high are particularly at risk.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) concentrations, as measured by two components — NO (nitric oxide) and Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) during morning rush hour — are mainly the result of vehicular emissions. If inhaled, nitrogen oxides are very highly toxic. They can cause shortness of breath, chest pains, increase respiratory infections, and asthma. Long-term exposure can cause chronic lung disease. Diesel school buses are a source of exposure to school children.

Lead (Pb), which is another result of vehicular emissions (e.g large trucks), interferes with children’s brain development as well as their cardiovascular and reproductive systems .

Children with wheezing, physician-diagnosed asthma, ear/nose/throat infections, flu/serious cold, and lung conditions are most affected by vehicular emissions.

Vehicular emissions should be measured by mobile check post programs around schools.

Continuous air quality monitoring stations should be set up around schools in various locations in Toronto. A satellite/mobile air monitoring station may also monitor air quality. Moreover, the implementation of Vehicular Emissions Standards and Air Quality Standards are also very important. The Government of Ontario has the Air Quality Index (AQI) and the newly developed Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) to inform the public. Billboards about AQHI should be posted in school areas to increase parents’ and children’s awareness.

Taking Action to Improve Air Quality

Based on research reviewed by WHEN on the extent and causes of air pollution in school areas, the following steps will very likely and quickly improve air quality around our schools:

• Enforce the City of Toronto’s anti-idling bylaw more aggressively around schools

• Monitor ambient air quality with continuous air monitoring stations near schools and release the information to increase public awareness

• Set up Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) billboards near schools to increase parents’ and children’s awareness

• Implement Air Quality Standards

• Introduce Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) driven school buses

• Restrict operation of heavy duty diesel-vehicles near schools to night time only

• Organize a locally-driven “human school bus” system whereby parents get together to take turns walking a group of neighbourhood kids to school

• Test vehicular emissions regularly by a mobile check post program around schools

• Encourage regular vehicle inspections and proper maintenance of the vehicles as an important step to reduce air pollution

• Introduce low sulphur content fuel; promote a clean fuel in vehicles instead of gasoline

• Revise and implement Vehicular Emission Standards

• Consider limiting diesel-driven vehicles; increasing the use of CNG vehicles in the street will help protect children’s health around schools.