Cindy Trahan’s fight began four years ago when her daughter Jessica, a ninth-grader at North Country Union High School in Newport, Vt., collapsed at school, unable to breathe.

Trahan got to the school in time to ride with her daughter in the ambulance to the hospital. “One of the guys in the back of the ambulance said, ‘We’re losing her,'” she recalled. “I said, ‘No, you’re not losing her, you’re not losing my daughter.'”

Jessica, who had developed worsening respiratory problems and sensitivity to fumes, survived and is now in her first year at Johnson State College. Her mother now is a member of the North Country Union School Board and nationally recognized as an advocate for clean air inside schools. “I became the parent from Hell,” she said.

And North Country Union High School is known around Vermont and beyond as having a tough policy about school buses and delivery trucks not idling near the building. It recently received an award from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for excellence in its indoor air quality program.

Now the state’s environmental agency has taken up the cause of healthy air in and around schools. Natural Resources Secretary Scott Johnstone recently issued a newsletter calling on Vermonters to ask their school boards to adopt policies similar to that in Newport.

“Diesel engine fumes contain a dangerous mix of pollutants, including benzene, dioxins, arsenic, and more than 30 other compounds,” Johnstone said. He added that the fumes also contribute to ground-level ozone, which aggravates respiratory problems.

Johnstone also has been urging parents who drive their kids to and from school not to idle their cars outside. “Allowing your car to idle next to the school means children—including your children—are inhaling pollutants coming from your car,” he said in his newsletter.

Ben Davis, environmental health organizer with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said his organization had been working on indoor-air quality issues for years.

Davis said a bill currently before the state Legislature would call for stepped-up inspections of diesel vehicles’ emissions and require tuneups when trucks and buses failed the tests. He said he had been working up a draft municipal ordinance for cities and towns that want to crack down on idling, but he added that Burlington was the only Vermont community he knew of that had adopted such an ordinance to date.

When school officials at North Country first began hearing complaints of poor indoor air quality, they were slow to respond, Trahan said. But her advocacy, coupled with workers’ compensation cases brought against the school by two employees, brought the school around.

The school also hired Mary Scarpa as its new business manager, and she took up the battle against fumes as a crusade. The school board didn’t adopt a formal policy until this past March, but Scarpa was aggressive enough on the issue that Principal Robert McKenney, who came to the regional school of 1,100 students three years ago, was able to say, “By the time I got here, it wasn’t a problem any more.”

The diminutive Scarpa, a New Jersey native, is modest about her efforts. But she’s got a big fan in Trahan.

“For a while Mary would run out all the time and say shut your bus off,” to any of the district’s 13 bus drivers who were idling outside the school. Since the business manager oversees the bus drivers, Scarpa was the boss.

She also was able to tell the school’s vendors not to idle their trucks outside. She told fuel dealers to make their deliveries before school in the morning or after classes in late afternoon. And she rented a parking lot two miles from the school where the buses can warm up in the morning before beginning their day’s rounds.

Before steps were taken, including a major renovation to the building in 1998, “We had a severe indoor air quality problem,” Scarpa said. “In the afternoon, when you’d have 12 or 14 buses out front all at the same time, the fumes would come directly into the school. They’d come in when the doors were open and they’d come in through the ventilators” on the school’s roof.

As school got out one recent afternoon, buses pulled up three abreast in previously assigned spots in the driveway, ready to carry students to hometowns reaching from Montgomery to the west to Island Pond to the east.

Three that were dropping off students who had gone on field trips idled briefly—and not all at once—as they let kids out before proceeding to their assigned spaces.

Ray Patneaude of Derby was one of the drivers who pulled up and shut his engine off right away. “It’s no problem for me,” he said of the no-idling policy. “I don’t think anybody’s really had any problem with it. Some of the new drivers forget sometimes, but they’ll get used to it.”

Links:

Environmental Protection Agency, Ariel Rios Building, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20460; phone (202) 260-2090, web http://www.epa.gov.