The Environmental Protection Agency has a new strategy in mind to reduce kids’ toxic exposure: electrify more school buses.

Last month, EPA Administrator Michael Regan took a trip to Northern Virginia to publicize the agency’s Clean School Bus Program, which will reimburse districts $5 billion over five years if they replace their diesel-burning buses with electric, zero-emissions vehicles. These rebates could go a long way toward decarbonizing America’s transportation sector – the single-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. But public health officials say the benefits go beyond the climate, potentially improving the health of millions of kids.

“Diesel exhaust is strongly associated with asthma risk, and it causes inflammation in the airways and the blood vessels,” Gina Solomon, a principal investigator at Public Health Institute, said to E&E News. “None of these are things we want to have happen to kids on their way to school.”

Researchers from the National Resources Defense Council and the University of California, San Francisco recently found that the diesel-based particulate matter inside school buses can be up to 10 times higher than outside the vehicle. They concluded that diesel fumes in school buses actually come up through the floors of the buses.

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In contrast, fully electric buses have no emissions and would greatly reduce students’ exposure to harmful emissions.

But for all the health benefits of electrifying school buses, many districts have been stymied by the up-front expenses. Electric buses cost more than three times as much as diesel-powered ones, putting all-electric fleets out of financial reach for many communities. 

In line with his plan to electrify the federal vehicle fleet, President Biden originally proposed $174 billion for electrified school buses. That proposal involved electrifying 96,000 school buses – about 20 percent of the nation’s total school bus fleet. Those ambitions have since been scaled back. The current $5 billion Clean School Bus Program only provides enough funding for about 11,000 new electric buses. 

But while the money is welcome news to many districts, the program’s limitations have also led to equity concerns. “There are a lot of districts that just aren’t able to put this money down upfront and then apply for rebates,” said Molly Rauch, public health policy director for Moms Clean Air Force. And since communities of color often have higher exposure to on-road particulate matter emissions and fewer financial resources than their white counterparts, the program may not end up reaching those most at risk of poor health outcomes.

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Still, several big municipalities seem eager to make the transition to electric buses. Last year, Boston announced it would replace its entire school bus fleet with electric buses by 2030. And earlier this month, New York became the first state to commit to fully electrifying its fleet – 50,000 buses by 2035. 

There are hopes that the new EPA funds will allow more school districts to be able to buy electric buses more quickly. As battery technology improves, the costs of electric buses are likely to go down, giving more school districts access to the electric vehicle market.