Clearing the Air - A KAKE News Special Report

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Health officials call childhood asthma an epidemic. The problem is nationwide. In the Wichita school system alone, more than 4,000 kids suffer from the sometimes deadly disease.

School nurses relate an asthma attack to trying to breathe through a straw. The kids gasp for breath and feel painful pressure on their chests.

Wichita Public School Nurse Julie Jamis sees dozens of children every day who come in for their dose of allergy medicine.

Now, the government is putting some of the blame on school buses. The Environmental Protection Agency says buses pour soot into the air. The dangers from bus diesel exhaust can range from respiratory illnesses like asthma and bronchitis to lung cancer and heart disease.

The emissions contain tiny particles that cause airways to swell and make it difficult to breathe, especially for kids. They breathe faster and their lungs aren't fully developed.

John Stark, head of the Wichita Health Department's air quality program, said he is working together with the EPA, the state and schools to improve the air our kids breathe.

Stark said the main exposure kids receive from diesel is when buses idle. But you won't see that in the Maize School District. It has a no idling policy.

"It conserves fuel, but you're also not emitting any pollutants into the air," Stark said.

Maize applied for a government grant that would practically pay for anti-pollution filters for the older buses. But with about 60 buses, the grant money just wasn't enough.

Still, Maize believes by keeping the buses shut off near the schools, the air here is clean.

"It was a good way to reduce air pollution and the exposure to the bus drivers and the kids," Stark said.

Durham School Services, which carries Wichita Schools' students, implemented a "no idling" policy two years ago.

No one knows for sure why the number of asthma cases has grown by so many, but keeping the air quality clear of exhaust is expected to help.

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