Like Second-Hand Smoke, Idling Engines Harm Our Children

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carExhaust| by Greg Galloway|  
Tarrytown Environmental Advisory Council

When it comes to idling in your car or truck, what you don’t know can definitely hurt you, your car, and your pocket book. Not to mention potentially get you in trouble with the law.

There was a time when engines worked more efficiently after warming up for a few minutes, but that time has passed.  Today’s cars and trucks (models built after 1988 which have fuel-injector systems versus carburetors) are ready to move after running for only a few seconds.  Similarly, gone are the days when starting an engine consumed an inordinate amount of gas.  Today’s engines start up with such efficiency that, if you’re not going to be moving for more than 10 seconds, you’ll save gas (and money) by turning the engine off.  In fact, in almost all cases, idling a modern engine creates a less efficient operating environment, resulting in excess fuel residue, further reducing engine efficiency and shortening the life of the engine.

In a busy parking lot, on a crowded street, or at a pick-up point at a train or bus station or school, a few minutes of comfort inside your vehicle may create a serious health hazard for those outside your vehicle.  Idling engines produce toxic gases associated with severe health risks. Vehicle exhaust contains tiny particles that travel right past your nose and throat’s natural filters to reach the lungs. Common ill-effects can include irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat; cough, nausea, worsening of pre-existing asthma, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks, and damage to the immune system. Scientific studies have shown that inhaling particle pollution can lead to illness, hospitalization, and even premature death.   Particle pollution has also been linked to risk of cancer, adverse birth outcomes, and stunted childhood lung development.  Idling your engine for just one minute produces as much carbon monoxide—a toxic gas—as smoking three packs of cigarettes.

For several reasons, the youngest among us are most at risk from the dangers of idling vehicles and the fine particulate matter they generate. These fine particulates are so miniscule that several thousand of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence, and some ultra-fine particles may even enter the bloodstream.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Children are more susceptible to air pollution than healthy adults because their respiratory systems are still developing and they have a faster breathing rate.”

The risk to children is heightened by their increased potential for exposure during the school year; idling buses and passenger vehicles present a danger to those in and around them.  Even students in the classroom are at jeopardy when vehicles idle outside entranceways, under school windows, and outside of school grounds. Children can encounter idling vehicles waiting for the arrival of the school bus at the beginning or end of the day. Vehicle exhaust contains air toxics, such as benzyne and formaldehyde, which are known carcinogens. Potential short-term effects of exposure include developmental delays; reduced immunity, which can result in missed days of school and increased hospital visits; drowsiness; dizziness; headache; and eye, skin and respiratory irritation.  Chronic effects can include cancer, birth defects, reproductive effects and challenges. (American Lung Association)

Westchester County’s anti-idling law, which became effective February 10, 2009, prohibits non-emergency vehicles from idling their engines in excess of 3 minutes, unless the temperature outside is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no temperature exception for diesel-powered vehicles. Certain commercial vehicles, such as those dependent on their engines for product refrigeration or tow trucks loading or discharging vehicles, and electric vehicles are exempted from the law.

The Village of Tarrytown has recently added anti-idling signage to remind drivers of the law, part of Westchester County’s Sanitary code.  A first offense may carry a fine of $250, up to 15 days in jail, or both. Repeat violators of the law can potentially face a fine of up to $500 and/or 15 days in jail.

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