Sylvia Brandt: Asthma rates in Amherst

Sylvia Brandt, a UMass associate professor of resource economics, researched asthma rates at Amherst’s elementary schools, finding that numbers are rising at the renovated Crocker Farm, but have remained level at Fort River and Wildwood, the two schools that would be demolished under the district’s consolidation plan. In this letter, Brandt also outlines the environmental threat posed by increased bus traffic, which would be necessary to get Amherst’s children to and from the consolidated school.
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While we need to address the problems in two of our schools, Fort River and Wildwood, the referendum to consolidate the existing schools is not the environmentally friendly option. I would like our community to consider the increase in pollution and health hazards this project would create.

If the schools are consolidated the diesel school buses will travel more than 100 additional miles a day, which is a substantial increase in greenhouse emissions and dangerous diesel pollution. There is no safe level of exposure to diesel exhaust. Children on traditional diesel engine buses are commonly exposed to the levels of diesel pollution that are up to 7.5 times the level of these pollutants outside the bus. The pollution created by diesel engines leads to asthma attacks, children developing asthma who would otherwise not have asthma, heart attacks and a long list of other health hazards. Emerging evidence even links traffic pollution with autism and Alzheimer’s disease. The costs of these illnesses are huge. Tragically those who bear these costs are typically those who can afford it the least —- lower income and minority families.

The data from the school committee’s analysis show that under school consolidation, 86% of our kids would be spending one hour or more a day on the bus. Research shows that longer bus rides are associated with more absences from school and lower test scores.

The health effects of this pollution are not in question. The reality is that if we increase the number of miles traveled a day, and the length of bus rides, we put our health at risk. Technology will not help us. Electric school buses are not an alternative because of technological limitations and their huge price tag. What is tagged “clean diesel” can reduce some emissions but considering the extremely high levels of toxics, this reduction is not impressive. Furthermore, any reduction from “clean diesel” would be offset by the increase in the length of bus rides.

This consolidation project has been defeated twice before. Why are we voting in a referendum again? How did this project even get to the voting stage when the overwhelming majority of teachers and the community preferred options keeping kindergarten through 6th grade together? Sadly, the process has been driven by fear and misinformation. Teachers and parents have been put into an impossible position where they are told this project is their only option. They have been given the message that conditions at Wildwood and Fort River are destitute.

The data tell very different stories. Amherst has a positive operating balance, and policy makers could prioritize education. We could be solving these problems now rather than arguing over a contentious consolidation project. Like other communities that vetoed proposed buildings, we could take the time to design a project that has wide support. Priority in getting state funds for school buildings is determined by need. Therefore, our chances of re-entering the state funding pipeline would not be compromised by turning down this problematic project.

Because I am on the Children’s Environmental Health Scientific Advisory Council of the Environmental Protection Agency, I was very concerned by the message that two schools in Amherst are unhealthy. Thus I collected data on rates of asthma in our schools, which is a measure the EPA uses to evaluate children’s health risks. I also collected the publicly available data on the race/ethnicity and income indicators for the schools to see if these are factors. It turns out the three schools are virtually indistinguishable from each other in terms of race/ethnicity and income characteristics.

The data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health show that we are doing well in Amherst. All three elementary schools have asthma rates that are equal to or lower than the state average. It is notable that rates of asthma are statistically constant in Wildwood and Fort River in recent years. These are the two schools that have been characterized as unhealthy. In contrast, the rate of asthma has been increasing in Crocker Farm over time. In the most recent year of data, Crocker Farm has a rate of asthma that is statistically higher than Wildwood. Crocker Farm is the school that is characterized as being in the best condition.

Our community loves its children. Parents and teachers want the best possible schools. Amherst can afford to wait for a design that protects our kids’ health, enhances education and limits our carbon footprint. Let’s stand up for using good science to set public policy. Let’s stand up and say that we want a project that works for all of Amherst. Let’s stand up and save we will fight climate change on the local level. Vote “No” on the referendum to build a new consolidated elementary school in Amherst.

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