FF12: Parents causing air pollution and hurting young lungs

WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) Ten-year-old Joselyn's lungs haven't had the easiest time doing their job.

"She's had childhood asthma since she was born so it's something we always do watch anyway," her dad, Chris Palsmeier, said. It's something he said his family has had to stay on top of.

It's also why he and other parents at Amelia Earhart Environmental Magnet School in Wichita do one simple thing when they pick up or drop off their kids - cut the engine.

"Everybody that we see here, everybody pretty much follows the rules so in general for us here, it's a good thing," Palsmeier said.

Another parent, Melonie Bell said, "I think it's probably the best policy to have especially for elementary school with all the young kids here and exposure to all the environmental hazards."

Principal Chris Waterbury said it was an easy decision to make.

"We were approached by a group from the University of Kansas and talking to us a little bit about having some idle free zones. I guess the idea actually spawned from some AVID students at Truesdell Middle School," Waterbury said.

He said the school had already given bus drivers a maximum time per day to have engines turned on but this was one step further.

"We have a lot of students with asthma and airborne allergies and I think it's really important for our students. They struggle with breathing on difficult days like that so that and noise pollution as well so we really want to have fresh, clean air," he said.

Plus, Waterbury's school posts air quality flags outside each day based on data from the EPA. He said most days are green which means the air quality is great but he's seen some days turn yellow when students with breathing issues have to pay closer attention. He said he's rarely seen it get orange and has never seen a need for a red flag.

Dr. Elizabeth Ablah was part of that KU group and said her team worked with the City of Wichita to identify environmental problems. She said her group had 92 pages of responses and narrowed that down to 19 issues.

"The top concern around air was mobile source air emissions so that's why we decided to create this relationship with USD 259 so that we could have some sort of impact in the community around health," Ablah said.

Many things together make up vehicle emissions including Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's) and hundreds of tiny particles from unburnt fuel, metal and combustion.

Nitrogen Oxide mixed with VOC's makes Ozone and the mixture of the other particles makes Particulate Matter 2.5. Both of those are dangerous to lungs, especially young lungs.

"So if someone has bronchitis or asthma this is going to very much exacerbate, especially the Ozone will exacerbate those type of symptoms ," Ablah said. "The biggest problem for Wichita in our air is Ozone and that is directly related to chronic pulmonary problems and respiratory conditions."

Ablah said Particulate Matter 2.5 and Ozone are the two largest pollutants in Wichita air and car exhaust is heavily to blame.

Car emissions, according to Ablah, account for 55% of the NOx in Wichita air and 39% of the VOC's in the air.

We wanted to know how much damage one vehicle has so we went to Air Quality Specialist Randy Owen and tested our KWCH SUV.

"People might be thinking, oh it's only one car. It's only whatever, it's only one gallon of gas they spilled on the ground. But when we're talking about such extremely small numbers, every single little bit helps," Owen said.

He put the tester in our vehicle tailpipe and we got in the car and pressed the gas.

First, we tested the vehicle at 2500 RPM to mimic highway driving and the numbers on the testing machine went up a little. We then tested idling and the numbers didn't change all that much. Owen said, that's what he expected.

"Very very little. The O2 percent is a little bit higher when it's idle but we expect that and it's well within the safe range. CO2 up a little bit," he said.

That means one SUV alone wouldn't do much harm. But it's not only one SUV around your child.

"It all adds up, maybe little bitty parts of it. But if times 500 people at each school, you know after a while it does make a difference," Owen said.

Plus, these emissions are reaching your child twice a day.

According to air quality specialists who work for the City of Wichita, in given week, one vehicle idling for five minutes to drop off a student and five minutes to pick up a student per day will emit 0.04 pounds of NOx and 0.05 pounds of VOCs. That data is based on a passenger vehicle whose fuel economy is 25 MPG.

Doing the math for an entire school year, each vehicle will emit roughly 1.32 pounds of NOx and 1.97 pounds of VOCs.

For comparison, the yearly impact one vehicle has is the same as burning 341 pounds of coal or 13 propane tanks. To offset that pollution, a person would have to plant eight trees and let them grow for 10 years.

Since Wichita is one of few districts across Kansas with idle-free zones, it poses the question.

"Why would we continue to do something that we know is harmful for our kids?" Ablah asks.

FactFinder 12 called several districts around Wichita and they say they don't have these kinds of zones because they either have different drop off and pick up policies or because the issue just hasn't come up.

Wichita is hoping to be a model for other districts so kids like Joselyn can breathe easy as they say hi or bye to mom and dad.

"It's safe for everybody," Palsmeier said. "It's good for teaching them that we don't need to have the cars running when they don't need to."