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Questions and answers about schools and traffic pollution

So what can schools near roads do about their air quality?

Closing a school’s doors and windows won’t keep traffic pollutants out (though that helps). Heavy-duty air filters — higher quality than the typical filters in schools — can substantially reduce what gets into the air the kids and teachers are breathing inside.

Filters rated MERV 16, characterized as surgery-grade, have been installed in dozens of Southern California schools. In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, more than 40 schools have high-grade filters to improve air in areas near highways, ports and other pollution sources.

Measurements by the South Coast Air Quality Management District — a local air-pollution control agency — found that MERV 16 filters in schools catch approximately 90 percent of fine and ultrafine particles, pollutants that are a key part of what makes traffic pollution a health risk. A much lower 20 to 50 percent of the particles were caught by the measured schools’ earlier efforts, which at best had involved air filters with a rating of MERV 7.

MERV 16 filters aren’t high price. You can buy them for less than $100 apiece. Schools with central air conditioning and heating — an HVAC system — should be able to use them, but it might take some retrofitting. IQAir, a company that’s installed high-grade filtration in hundreds of schools, most in California, says schools with a central system usually don’t need to spend much on alterations.

The big cost is for schools without HVAC. They’re left with two expensive options: pony up for HVAC, or pay for stand-alone air purification systems that are much pricier than air filters.

The South Coast air district offered a rough estimate of around $2,500 per classroom to install high-quality filters — averaging between schools that don’t need to do much and those staring down big-ticket HVAC costs.

At El Marino Language School in Culver City, California, officials retrofitted the heating system to get the filters in — that work cost about $500,000 — and plan to spend an additional $2 million installing air conditioning this summer so teachers can keep the doors and windows closed, allowing the filters to do their work.

How have schools paid for indoor-air fixes?

Dozens of schools in Southern California have received high-grade air filters paid for by the South Coast air district, which has funded the work with a pool of money that includes penalties assessed on polluting companies.

Not all schools near major roads in that region qualify, though. So the freeway-adjacent El Marino Language School got funding after the Culver City Unified School District in California proposed an ultimately successful bond measure, some of which was earmarked for work there. The lack of air conditioning at El Marino meant a higher price tag for effective filtration. The school could (and ultimately did) install filters by retrofitting the heating system, but it really needed to add AC, too, so unfiltered air wouldn’t flow in through doors open directly to the outdoors.

In Utah, meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation is paying for higher-quality air filters at five schools within about 1,600 feet of a highway under construction. That’s part of a deal struck after parents, environmentalists and doctors mobilized during the planning stages nearly a decade ago, modeled after a settlement over a highway-widening project in Las Vegas. Funding allotted for the Utah school upgrades and 30 years of future maintenance: $1.1 million, the equivalent of about $7,300 per school per year.

My school has air filters. That’s good enough, right?

School filtration and ventilation is often subpar, according to researchers who have documented conditions in the West and Midwest. Years ago, when he was at the California Air Resources Board, Thomas J. Phillips was part of a study of school classrooms and found air filters that “hadn’t been changed in quite a while — maybe the life of the school.”

Phillips, now principal scientist at Healthy Building Research in California, points out that school budgets are usually crunched.

“Things like air sealing and better air filtration will help,” he said. “But the devil’s in the details. How do you make sure it’s done right? How do you fund it? How do you maintain it?”

Being vigilant about maintenance is a good start. But the EPA also recommends that schools with traffic-pollution challenges install the highest-grade air filters they can. (For more details on that, see the answer above to “So what can schools near roads do about their air quality?”)

What can I do if my district is building a school near a highway or other significant road?

You could start a conversation if it’s not a done deal: Does your school district realize the health implications of nearby traffic? (Many don’t.) Are there other viable sites farther from busy roads?

Traffic isn’t the only environmental-health hazard, and the EPA cautions that building schools in far-off locations to avoid traffic just forces kids and staff to spend more time on roads to get there, breathing those pollutants while sitting in buses and cars. If a school must be built near significant traffic, experts recommend designing the site to improve air quality.

An effective HVAC system with high-grade air filters will substantially reduce the traffic particles getting to the classrooms, as schools in freeway-heavy Southern California have found. It’s also a good idea to put outdoor-activity areas, such as playgrounds and athletic fields, farther from the road while earmarking the closest spots for uses such as parking and storage, the EPA says. Other measures, such as placing the air intake away from the fumes of the road and the school loading dock, can also help.

The state plans to build a big road near my child’s school. Now what?

That’s happening in Utah. After parents, environmentalists and doctors joined forces to object, the state Department of Transportation agreed to pay for air monitoring and higher-quality air filters at five schools near the incoming Mountain View Corridor highway project.

“We’ve come a long way just to understand there is a problem out there,” said Linda Hansen, a member of the Utah State Board of Education and a former PTA leader in the affected school district. “We’re hoping once we get the data … from this project, we’ll be able to use it in other projects and get districts to see they really need to put some mitigation into those schools they have near roadways, because it’s hard on kids.”

This is why she thinks the advocacy effort paid off: “Groups that usually don’t work together on issues all came together.”

Reed Soper, environmental manager on the Mountain View Corridor project for a Department of Transportation contractor, sees the outcome as a win, too. “Everyone was willing to roll up their sleeves and come up with a solution that didn’t involve a lawsuit,” he said.

A big increase in truck traffic is coming near my child’s school. What can I do?

If it’s temporary, see if the traffic can be timed to avoid school days. Residents in Mars, Pennsylvania, convinced an energy company to wait until summer to hydraulically fracture gas wells there so schools wouldn’t be in session during the ensuing spike in truck volumes on the road passing by them, said Patrice Tomcik, the western Pennsylvania field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force. State environmental protection officials acted as mediators between residents and the company.

“I just want other communities to realize they have options,” she said.

If it’s not temporary, talk to transportation officials. Could other roads handle the traffic instead? What would be the implications of rerouting it? Or talk to the company behind the increase, if there’s a single employer involved.

In Chicago, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization has pressed a manufacturer to use newer, less-polluting trucks as it prepares for hundreds more trips a day on a site next to an elementary school. The group’s leaders say they’re encouraged by the ongoing conversation.

“That’s not to say we don’t want the jobs, or that this growth isn’t important. It is,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the group. “But not at the cost of the truck drivers” — who breathe air tainted with their exhaust — “or the communities where these trucks are going.”

My kid’s school isn’t near any major roads, but what about the diesel school buses that idle outside? Isn’t that a problem?

Yes. Getting bus drivers (and parents) to turn off their engines while waiting to pick up kids really can make a difference. Pat Ryan, an associate professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, led a study that found significant drops in air pollutants following an anti-idling campaign at a Cincinnati school with a lot of buses.

Just putting up a no-idling sign isn’t enough, Ryan said: “You have to be a little more active, at least until — hopefully — it becomes a habit.” There’s an assumption among some drivers that they’ll burn up more fuel turning their engine off and back on again than if they idle, but that’s not true, he said.

The EPA has also helped school districts replace old diesel buses with grants from its Diesel Emissions Reduction Act program. But the future of that funding is unclear.

I’m not in a big city. This stuff doesn’t apply to my area, right?

Schools near busy roads are a particular problem in big cities, but thousands of these cases are in suburbs, smaller cities and rural communities.

School districts in areas with more undeveloped land do have options a heavily urbanized district doesn’t, as long as the issue is on their radar. Consider the suburban Blue Valley district in Overland Park, Kansas. Officials there try to get new schools into the plans for future subdivisions while there’s still time for that — and to build their campuses as far from major roads as they can.

“Safety is one [reason], but the impact of pollutants on those major roads is another one,” said Dave Hill, executive director of facilities and operations for Blue Valley, which helps mentor other school districts on indoor-air quality.

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