Turlock

Turlock kids taking action against idling to improve air quality

Brown Elementary student body officers, from left, Genesis Ellis, Alondra Zaragoza and Rocco Perez talk to fifth- and sixth-graders at the school about how dirty air can make kids sick during an air quality assembly Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016.
Brown Elementary student body officers, from left, Genesis Ellis, Alondra Zaragoza and Rocco Perez talk to fifth- and sixth-graders at the school about how dirty air can make kids sick during an air quality assembly Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. naustin@modbee.com

Bad air can make kids sick, from itchy eyes to cancer, Alondra Zaragoza told her classmates.

“Think about it. This is the air that we breathe. Do you want to be polluting it?” fellow sixth-grader Genesis Ellis asked them.

Burning fuel from oil and coal create air pollution, Rocco Perez explained.

The three are student body officers at Walter Brown Elementary School in Turlock, where students took part in sixth-grade science projects around air pollution. They shared their reports as part of an assembly Thursday put on by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

The assembly was a tip of the hat to Turlock Unified School District’s longtime efforts to reduce the impact of smog and pollution on student health, the goal of the air district’s Healthy Air Living Schools program.

The free program includes the Real-time Air Advisory Network, a 24-hour service of real-time localized air quality information throughout the valley. The information includes a color-coded Real-Time Outdoor Activity Risk guideline for outdoor exercise, colors Walter Brown fifth- and sixth-graders instantly recognized as air board staffer Anthony Presto quizzed them during the assembly.

The point of having students learn about air quality is to make a better world in the future, Presto told students, “so things will be better for you and your kids.”

Turlock’s been on top of this for a long time.

Gil Ogden, Turlock Unified School District director of student services

Turlock schools use the RAAN updates and color codes. Kids stay indoors during hours when air quality is bad (red) and children with asthma or other health issues get a close watch when the indicator calls for caution (yellow), said Brown Principal Luisa Salinas.

Healthy air is something of a cause at Brown Elementary, where eight teachers received $250 mini-grants to fund anti-air pollution educational projects from the Central California Asthma Collaborative.

“Turn the key, be idle-free!” the assembly crowd chanted.

The air district and collaborative have partnered in a campaign against cars sitting with their engines running, a particular problem at schools, said organization spokeswoman Destiny Rodriguez.

“Idling is something we’re seeing a lot of health issues with,” she said. The collaborative gave out 60 mini-grants throughout the valley, she said.

Valley air problems have long been associated with higher incidence of asthma and upper respiratory infections, especially for children.

In California, school buses must be turned off when stopped at a school until 30 seconds before they leave, and cannot idle for longer than five minutes when stopped within 100 feet of a school.

Turlock Unified started making hourly air checks in 2007. At the time, the district was using a flag to signal when a bad air day was forecast, but that kept kids indoors the full day, said Roger Smith, district safety coordinator.

“It was just a forecast that somewhere in Stanislaus County air would be bad sometime during the day. But in the early morning hours it could be perfectly fine,” Smith said after the assembly. He began searching hourly updates at area air monitoring stations and sending out email alerts if ozone or other levels got high.

In the summer, the worst time for air pollution can often be midafternoon. In the winter, low-lying clouds or fog can cause problems early in the day. Either way, the time of day kids are out running at recess or exercising in PE makes a difference.

Also time-sensitive are weather alerts the district issues, for extreme heat or cold, or severe storms. Thunderstorms cause children to be pulled back inside and, at the high schools, out of the pools.

Red alerts are rare, Smith said, usually only happening when there is a forest fire in the hills. There is also a too-dangerous-for-anyone air level – purple. “I tell people it’s like the volcano going off,” he said.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

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