Recently, the Houston Chronicle published an article showing that over 80,000 schoolchildren at 127 schools are frequently exposed to air pollution due to their proximity to busy roadways. Houston, in particular, is vulnerable to the formation of unhealthy air pollution, given the city is home to one of the busiest ports in the country and some of the busiest roadways, and emissions from all those vehicles tend to pool around the streets locals use most. But what’s critical to note is that exposure to this kind of pollution is especially harmful for our young ones, as children breathe in more air per pound of body weight than adults. Now, with these staggering figures, it’s clear that something must be done to protect Houston children from the dangers of vehicle pollution.
In total, 127 Houston-area schools were found to be located within 200 meters of a roadway, the distance within which traffic-related pollution is most potent. The accumulation of these emissions, which contain nitrous oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), form ozone pollution under the right conditions—usually on warm, sunny days. With no shortage of vehicles emissions or sunlight, the city is definitely a hot spot for ozone pollution and Houstonians are faced with increased health risks.
Ozone pollution has been linked to a number of adverse health effects. Frequent exposure to elevated ozone levels causes pulmonary inflammation, increasing the incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Furthermore, ozone exposure has been linked to increased hospital admissions, heart disease and even cancer. Children are especially vulnerable to ozone-related health effects, because their lungs are still developing. Plus, school activities like recess and gym class increase students’ exposure to outdoor air pollutants, increasing their susceptibility to these adverse health effects.
For years, schools were built near busy roadways for the sake of inexpensive land and easy access for school buses. Now, it’s clear that new policies are required to protect children in Houston and around the country from overexposure to air pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) proposed ‘Tier 3” vehicle emissions and fuel standards will lead to significant reductions in harmful vehicle emissions by requiring oil companies to reduce the sulfur content in gasoline and automobile manufacturers to employ the latest emissions-control technology in their vehicles. Overall, it’s been shown that the health-related savings from the Tier 3 standards alone will more than make up for the cost of implementing the program. And because Texas is home to millions of personal vehicles, the state stands to receive enormous benefits from the new Tier 3 standards to be finalized next month.
But we can’t just rely on the EPA to protect us from hazardous air pollution. It’s time for Texas decision-makers to implement policies to protect schoolchildren from the dangers of roadway air pollution too. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) should install air quality monitors near busy roadways, so that state officials, educators and parents know when air pollution exceeds safe levels in areas throughout the state.
Finally, Texas leaders should develop strict school siting rules, so that school districts consider the long-term effects of air pollution in their decision to build a new school. For years, building a school near a busy roadway has been an appealing option, but under the status quo over 127 Houston-area schools have been constructed too close to busy roadways. If Texas doesn’t change its policy soon, many more schools will be built in hazardous areas, putting thousands more schoolchildren at risk.