On Healthy Environments for Learning Day, environmental and children’s health advocates call on all levels of government to accelerate the switch to electric school buses. Ecology Ottawa has signed on to a joint letter calling on communities, school boards and governments at every level to accelerate the electrification of school buses, replacing tens of thousands of diesel-powered school buses spewing toxic fumes that can seriously harm child health and interfere with learning.
Led by the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE), a coalition of 34 organisations made the goal of all-electric school bus fleets in Canada the central focus of this year’s national Healthy Environments for Learning Day (April 27).
The joint call for urgent action by relevant decision-makers nationwide closely follows the publication in January of new scientific evidence from British Columbia that even “brief diesel exhaust exposure acutely impairs functional brain connectivity”. While adult subjects were studied, the new research raises further concerns about impaired brain function and learning ability of children breathing diesel fumes.
Other research has warned that diesel exhaust may impede child neurodevelopment, spatial learning, attention and memory, and contributes to a myriad other physical and mental health problems (detailed below), as well as climate change.
“Faced with the existential threat posed by climate change and mounting scientific evidence of the harm to children caused by traffic-related air pollution, including diesel exhaust, more comprehensive and urgent action is needed to bring electric school bus transportation to all communities across Canada,” the declaration says.
It underlines that “electric school buses are a viable solution that eliminates diesel bus emissions and exemplifies local action on climate change.”
The majority of Canada’s 50,000 school buses use diesel fuel. Each year, school buses make 792 million trips to carry roughly 2.2 million children to and from school.
Says CPCHE Executive Director Erica Phipps: “Buses operating close to schools mean that all children, not just those riding the buses, can be exposed to and affected by diesel exhaust.”
“The financial savings achieved over time by switching to cleaner, more sustainable school transportation more than make up for the initial cost of an electric bus. By switching to electric school buses, we can help our children thrive physically and intellectually while protecting the environment for generations to come with a tangible, visible action on climate change.”
- Accelerate the shift to all electric school bus fleets across Canada, through policy and funding measures that support electric bus procurement, operation and infrastructure
- Prioritise electric school bus adoption in communities facing disproportionate exposure to traffic-related air pollution
- Promote and celebrate the electric school bus as a way for children, families and communities to learn about and participate in climate action through the transition to zero-emission transportation in Canada
Says Dr. Phipps: “Given what we know about the child health effects of diesel exhaust and the risks posed by climate change, switching to an all electric school bus fleet should be an obvious choice nationwide to protect the health of children, now and into the future.”
Along with the call for government action, the campaign is promoting videos and other educational resources to catalyse and inform local efforts to support the shift.
“The iconic yellow school bus transitioning to electric is a symbol of active hope,” Dr. Phipps says. “It is an opportunity for students, educators and local communities to learn about and engage in a tangible action to protect the health of our children and the planet.”
A litany of child health consequences
The World Health Organization has recognized diesel exhaust as a human carcinogen. And Health Canada’s Human Health Risk Assessment concludes that exposure to diesel exhaust causes lung cancer and is linked to bladder cancer.
Health Canada has also documented a link between traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) and certain types of cancer including childhood leukemia and, in adults, breast cancer.
Acute and chronic exposures to diesel exhaust are linked to various harms including reduced lung function, inflammation of the airways, the risk of child asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, increased sensitivity to allergens, heart disease, arrhythmia, ischemia and myocardial infarction.
Toxicological research on diesel exhaust has also shown potential links to reproductive and developmental effects, and altered hormone levels and gene expression.
Today’s declaration notes that children are more vulnerable than adults to the health effects of air pollution, including diesel exhaust, “because their bodies are growing, their lungs are developing and because they breathe in more air per kilogram of body weight.”
Furthermore, “while Canadian data are limited, research shows that children in Canada who experience poverty, racialization and other forms of marginalization are often at greater risk because of disproportionate exposure to traffic-related air pollution.”
Researchers have concluded that prenatal and early life exposures to traffic-related air pollution are likely implicated in autism spectrum disorder. Researchers have also found associations between TRAP and deficits in intelligence, memory, attention and behaviour, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Furthermore, children can experience indirect barriers to learning as an impact of diesel exhaust. Asthma, for example, is the leading cause of school absenteeism and diesel emissions contribute to thousands of asthma symptom days and child acute bronchitis episodes across Canada every year.
Studies also show that substantial reductions in diesel emissions from school buses can contribute to decreases in childhood bronchitis and asthma cases, and lower diesel exposure may improve cognitive functioning.
Electric vs. diesel-powered buses:
While child health protection and climate action are clear benefits, initial challenges of shifting to electric school bus transportation can include the upfront costs of electric school bus models, the costs of charging stations and training for drivers and maintenance staff, and the shorter range of electric buses (though evolving battery technology is shrinking this difference with diesel vehicles). While reliable operation in extreme cold weather is an often-cited concern, leading manufacturers of electric school buses guarantee their vehicles for operation in such conditions.
Along with the Collective Call for Action, the CPCHE-led Healthy Environments for Learning Day coalition also published a graphic summarising the advantages of electric vs. diesel school buses:
"In addition to reducing impacts to human health and the environment, electrification of Canada’s school bus fleet would also deliver deep reductions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), making a significant contribution to the fight against climate change. Transitioning to electric school buses also promises to generate substantial economic development opportunities for our country's manufacturing sector in areas such as battery manufacturing and the provision of charging equipment. Pollution Probe urges federal and provincial governments to immediately catalyse the transition to electric school buses across Canada. The health of our children and the threat of the climate emergency demand this action."
- Christopher Hilkene, Chief Executive Officer, Pollution Probe
"There is an urgent need for the transition from diesel to electric school buses, and we are so encouraged to see the positive momentum across the country for this change. The HELD campaign is playing a significant role in raising awareness and engaging communities around children's health. We are proud to support this campaign as part of our coordinated efforts to reach 100% electric school buses in Canada by 2040 or earlier."
- Nicole Roach and Valérie Tremblay, Co-Coordinators, Canadian Electric School Bus Alliance
“As a physician and a mother, I am deeply concerned about the number of diesel powered school buses that still drive the streets of our neighbourhoods, while emitting harmful emissions and compromising the health of our children today and in the future. The evidence is clear - it’s time to shift to electric school buses as part of a broader strategy to reduce the health harms of air pollution and improve community well-being.”
- Dr. Samantha Green, CAPE Board Member and CAPE TRAP Report reviewer
“For many decades, scientists thought the brain may be protected from the harmful effects of air pollution. A growing body of evidence, however, points to a connection between air pollution and cognition.”
- Dr. Chris Carlsten, professor and head of respiratory medicine, and Canada Research Chair in occupational and environmental lung disease, University of British Columbia
“We are pleased to be a part of this campaign to replace diesel school buses with electric ones as a way to protect the health of children while reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Diesel is a significant source of traffic-related air pollution. With Health Canada linking 170,000 asthma days and 3,000 child acute bronchitis episodes to diesel every year, the evidence to act is clear. Electric school buses will help reduce harms to those most vulnerable including children and those living in neighbourhoods nearest to high traffic areas.”
- John Atkinson, Executive Director, Ontario Public Health Association
"As a parent of two, I am increasingly concerned about the air my children breathe. Here in Western Canada, we have experienced devastating wildfire seasons where the air is thick with smoke. Some days in Calgary, we experience pollution hanging low over the city. We must recognize the impact of air quality on our children's health and well-being. Electric buses provide a cleaner mode of transportation, emitting no harmful pollutants. They make the air safer for all - pedestrians, boarders, and bikers - and are a critical health and climate solution we can deploy now. Parents in our network are proud to be part of this initiative, and we will do what we can to achieve the goal of having all-electric school buses by 2040."
- Claire Kraatz with the For Our Kids Alberta team
By the numbers
- 0.2%: percentage of electric model school bus sales in Canada
- 65%: Estimated battery pack price drop, 2018 to 2030
- $2.75 billion: Total federal investments over five years beginning in 2021 to support the transition of public transit and school buses to zero emission vehicles
- 90: Tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by a diesel school bus over its 12-year expected lifespan, equal to the greenhouse gas emissions of 23 passenger vehicles in that same time
- 0: Safe level for exposure to particulate matter and some other diesel exhaust contaminants
- 2,200,000: Estimated acute respiratory symptom days caused by diesel emissions, all Canadians every year
- 170,000: Estimated asthma symptom days caused by diesel emissions in Canada every year
- 3,000: Estimated child acute bronchitis episodes caused by diesel emissions in Canada every year
- 262,000+: new jobs expected in the clean transport industry by 2030
- 160-240 km: Approximate range of new electric school buses on the market. (90 km: Average daily school bus distance travelled in Ontario – two trips, one in the morning, one in the afternoon)
- 52%: Savings per kWh available when electric school buses are charged in mid- and off-peak demand hours
- 60%: proportion of young people worldwide who feel “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, with 45% saying these feelings negatively affect their daily lives. Canadian health professionals are reporting an increase in climate-related distress among children, while experts cite “active hope” as an important way to address the problem
Source: White Paper: Opportunities for Accelerating School Bus Electrification in Ontario, By Pollution Probe, Delphi Group, and Canadian Partnership For Children’s Health and Environment, May 2022.
- 20,000: School buses in Ontario last year; 93% of them diesel
- 13: Electric school buses deployed in 2017, part of a provincial climate change initiative. Since then, at least 200 electric school buses have been ordered by fleet operators for delivery by 2026
- 15%: Ontario school buses 10 years old or older in 2020 (average lifespan: 12 years); 34% were 6-10 years old, 51% five years old or less
- 143: premature deaths that could be avoided if all public buses in Greater Toronto - Hamilton were replaced with an electric fleet, according to a 2020 study. The move would also yield $1.1 billion in social benefits and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 0.3 megatons every year
The Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE)
Healthy Environments for Learning Day (HELD)