Volume 74, Number 19 | September 02 - 09 , 2004

Anti-idling program is a breath of fresh air for kids

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

After a successful pilot program in three East Village elementary schools, a new program designed to improve the air quality around public schools will soon expand across New York to include several locations in Harlem and the Bronx.

Created by East Village resident Rebecca Kalin, the Asthma Free School Zone has helped promote safer, healthier environments surrounding three schools on E. 12th St. — the Children’s Workshop School, the East Village School and a special-education school in one of the buildings. Program components, such as enforcement of the no idling law and education on environmental health, will hopefully lead to less absenteeism and asthma-related illnesses in the city’s public schools, Kalin said.

“We want [the program] to be grassroots, and for citizens to be involved — for residents, businesspeople and school administrators to work together to optimize the safety and health of school zones,” Kalin said. “The program is based on the idea that education is key to behavioral change.”

Through the program, school busses are not permitted to idle in front of schools, a change that cuts down on emissions that pollute the air and act as asthma triggers. Parent coordinators and school administrators at each school teach bus drivers the importance of not idling. Starbucks has even sweetened the deal, Kalin said, by giving drivers free coffee gift cards.

Parents and teachers are encouraged to ask drivers of idling cars to turn off their engines, and some schools retrain crossing guards to help solve traffic problems by rerouting traffic. All schools also arrange environmental health presentations and programs and others offer free stop-smoking programs for staff, parents and neighborhood residents.

“We see the city as urban canyons — fumes are trapped by the buildings,” Kalin said, who added that during the pilot program she never heard of drivers refusing to turn off their engines. “Everybody cares about kids,” she said.

At one pilot school, it was found that 11 school buses and a number of cars idled for 45 minutes pre-pickup. A survey Kalin ran of 400 parents in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Lower Manhattan revealed that only about 9 percent of people were aware that an idling law of less than three minutes existed in New York City. So Kalin informed the community about the law and the poor health effects of fumes. Now, buses arrive at the school 10 minutes before pickup instead of 45.

“There’s so much room for public education here,” Kalin said. The program’s education component also includes street signs surrounding the schools that announce the asthma-free zone and posters across the city. One poster reads “Idling gets you nowhere.” Kalin has also printed book covers for students that reinforce that message.

Parents from participating schools said the asthma-free school zone has raised the environmental consciousness of parents and eliminated bus problems. “Now, busses turn off their engines when they park,” said Marga Snyder, a parent at Children’s Workshop School. “Rebecca was also instrumental in adding trees to our block, which was desperately needed. We look forward to more projects this year.”

Kalin plans to include business people in the program as well — owners of nearby bodegas can ask delivery trucks not to idle and refuse to sell cigarettes to minors, she said. While middle and high school administrators and some private schools have expressed interest in the program, Kalin wants to focus on younger children in public schools.

“Most asthma exacerbations happen in young children, and more parents are more active when their kids are in elementary school,” she said. “Our program needs parent power.” Public school children, she said, who often live in poorer areas of the city are also more at risk for asthma and other health issues.

The Asthma-Free School Zone program is supported by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Childhood Asthma Initiative, the City Council and District 2 Councilmember Margarita Lopez. The program is currently before the City Council as legislation to be implemented citywide. If passed, 1,200 schools would create their own asthma-free zones. Lopez is sponsoring the bill.

But for now, Kalin is helping the new participating schools — two by the Williamsburg Bridge, five in the South Bronx and several in Central and East Harlem, get organized for the Sept. 13 start of the school year. By choosing schools in the same neighborhood, Kalin hopes to create a buzz in the community, in supermarkets and laundromats, which can lead to a cleaner New York.

“If you said to New Yorkers, ‘Let’s clean up the city!’ everyone would reach for their remotes. But if you do it in bite-size chunks — this school and surrounding blocks — we start to see changes,” she said.

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