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Peter’s Take: APS Asthma Spike Renews Concerns

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

A 69% increase in asthma cases among APS elementary students — first reported in 2014 — has led Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment (ACE) to launch a new survey regarding idling times for cars and school buses at APS schools.


Among the “Key Findings” of a 2014 Community Report Card on the Status of Children, Youth, and Families were these:

The number of parent-reported chronic conditions in APS elementary students increased by 62% between 2009-10 and 2013-14, driven by a doubling in food allergies and a 69% increase in asthma.

On March 4, 2016, ACE launched a survey seeking information intended to shed light on the role that idling times for cars and school buses might be playing in this spike in asthma cases. The ACE survey notes:

Idling not only wastes fuel, it contributes to air pollution and the emission of toxins that cause cancer and other serious health effects, including asthma. According to the EPA, air quality monitoring at schools has shown elevated levels of benzene, formaldehyde, and other toxins in the time just after school pick up.


ACE is right to be concerned about the role that the toxins emitted by idling vehicles might be playing in the reported alarming increases in asthma among APS elementary students. As the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality explains:

  • Children breathe 50 percent more air per pound than adults.
  • Asthma is the third leading cause of hospitalization among children under the age of 15.
  • Children’s asthma symptoms increase as a result of car exhaust.
  • Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children and the cause of most school absences.

Because a single vehicle dropping off and picking up kids at one school puts three pounds of pollution into the air per month, stopping unnecessary vehicle idling is one relatively easy way to contribute to improved air quality and respiratory health in our communities.

However, one bus delivering 30 children to school generates far less overall exhaust (and thus pollutants) than do 30 individual private vehicles all driving a single child to school. To reduce atmospheric pollution near schools and limit children’s exposure, the principal goal of an anti-idling program should be to reduce the number of private cars driving children to school. APS can promote this goal by shortening bus routes and by collaborating with the Arlington County government to make it safer for children to walk and bike to school.

Car exhaust is a principal ingredient in ground-level ozone (or smog). Smog occurs when sunlight and heat react with vehicle exhaust. The American Lung Association has awarded Arlington’s air quality an “F” due to excessive smog. Spikes in ground-level ozone correspond to spikes in emergency room visits by asthmatics because smog inflames airways and reduces lung function, making it the greatest threat to children’s developing lungs.


How can we help? Arlington’s students already know the answer: we must be more careful stewards of the land. Protecting mature trees, limiting building footprints, minimizing paved surfaces and increasing green space all reduce the amount of heat-trapping elements in our built environment. Lower temperatures can reduce our children’s exposure to asthma-triggering ground-level ozone.

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