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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Off the Beaten Path

Air Date: Week of

Scientists are discovering that tiny particles associated with freeway exhaust are unhealthy for people to breathe day after day. Now that science is beginning to lead to changes in ideas about what should and shouldn't be located near freeways. Ky Plaskon reports from Las Vegas.


YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. Scientists are learning more about just what comes out of the tailpipes of our cars, trucks, and buses and just what it does to us. The more they learn, the more they warn against putting schools next to freeways. Microscopic particles of soot and metal are concentrated near busy roads and they’re linked to a host of health problems including heart disease and asthma. California was the first state to keep new schools at least 500 feet from freeways and the idea appears to be spreading. Ky Plaskon from KNPR in Las Vegas reports.


PLASKON: Highway US 95 in Las Vegas is a typical urban freeway: Overcrowded. When Nevada started to widen it 10 years ago the Sierra Club stood in the way. It sued, saying the state and federal government didn’t properly consider the serious public health impacts of more vehicles. The legal gridlock lasted a decade until last month when the Federal Highway Administration conceded that freeway pollution might have a negative impact on health. Administrator Mary Peters announced a settlement with the Sierra Club.

PETERS: We will monitor vehicle emissions at several major highway locations around the country, helping us to better understand the nature of these transportation emissions.

PLASKON: As part of the settlement the federal government will monitor 7 harmful pollutants including benzene, acrolein, formaldehyde, diesel exhaust and tiny particles as they float from the freeway to neighborhoods nearby.


PLASKON: At Fyfe Elementary in Las Vegas, children are playing less than 100 feet from U.S. 95. As part of the settlement the school district will get 3 millions to install advanced air filtration systems, make its busses less polluting and move play equipment away from the freeway. Sierra Club Attorney Joanne Spalding negotiated the deal.

SPALDING: What they are doing what is new and exciting is that they’re doing actual monitoring to measure the level of pollutants next to the freeway and in the background and at distances in between and then inside the schools they are testing an air filtration system that’s designed to reduce air toxins from highways.

PLASKON: The Sierra Club didn't get everything it wanted. It dropped a demand for a mass transit corridor along the freeway. Still, it considers the settlement a new tool against freeway expansions nationwide. It’s using the same health arguments to oppose projects in Utah, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Maryland.

BECKER: We are beginning to see a trend.

PLASKON: Bill Becker directs the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.

BECKER: And it is just a matter of time until those exemplary actions catch on throughout the rest of the country. So I predict that within a couple or three years you’ll see the same kinds of ordinances almost everywhere.

PLASKON: One place that’s already examining freeway pollution is Denver. The Department of Transportation there is going beyond federal requirements and instead using public health data collected at schools before approving two freeway expansions. Las Vegas is also considering an ordinance similar to California’s. One that says new schools should be set back from freeways. From Living on Earth, I’m Ky Plaskon in Las Vegas.



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