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Breathe easier: Grace Hill grant to retrofit diesel vehicles to help air quality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2010 - When it comes to the prevalence of coughing and wheezing asthmatic children, St. Louis ranks at the top nationally, according to Dr. Roderick Jones, president and CEO of Grace Hill Settlement House. The north side has the highest asthma rate in the city, due in part to poor air quality, he says. He adds that the city has the worst air quality in Missouri and that the state ranks 30th worst in the nation in air quality.

This environmental problem, and the chronic lung disorders it creates, were brought into sharp focus Thursday when Jones joined federal and city officials in announcing a $2 million grant to Grace Hill to retrofit diesel-fueled vehicles. The goal is to cut diesel emissions to improve air quality and, by extension, reduce lung disorders.

On display at St. Louis Fire Department headquarters, 1421 North Jefferson, where the announcement was made, were some of the vehicles involved in the project. The estimated 575 vehicles targeted for retrofits include delivery trucks, emergency response vehicles, airport shuttle buses and school buses.

Grace Hill officials say children are more vulnerable to vehicle exhaust because they breathe at a faster rate and often play closer to the ground near fumes. The officials add that vehicle exhaust has been linked to cancer, heart disease and many respiratory problems.

Jones says health problems resulting from exposure to emissions also cause children to miss time in schools and, in many cases, result in parents missing time at work to care for the sick youngsters. He added that the grant, which comes from federal stimulus money, will have both health and economic benefits.

"This will help the economy because part of the program involves an internship with the St. Louis Public Schools to help students learn" about diesel reduction technology, he says. The students will work with the retrofitters making the changes to the vehicles.

Karl Brooks, head of Region 7 of the Environmental Protection Agency, says the funding was part of a $2 billion investment in clean air initiatives.

"This may not seem very sexy," he said, "but if you can cut emissions from diesel engines you begin to solve" one major air pollution challenge. "We will realize tangible differences in places where people live with returned dividends in better lives, cleaner air, and economic" assistance, Brooks said, adding that "everyone benefits from taking care of the environment."

Grace Hill officials also said St. Louisans need to pay more attention to vehicle idling, noting that health consequences are among the reasons it's illegal to idle a vehicle more than five minutes in St. Louis and more than three minutes in St. Louis County.

Grace Hill's Clean Air Project, whose coordinator is Lauren Mitchell, distributed leaflets at the session, urging people to tell friends and family members to refrain from idling vehicles. The leaflet also encouraged residents to contact the Clean Air Project if they notice diesel vehicles idling in their communities.

Others speaking at the session were St. Louis Aldermanic Board President Lewis E. Reed, and Katina Steward, health services manager in the city's Division of Air Pollution Control.

The Grace Hill project was announced just as the American Lung Association issued its annual State of the Air report noting that St. Louis continues to struggle with poor air quality conditions. Susannah Fuchs, senior director of environmental health for the association's central states, says the city's ranking had improved to 30th worst this year from 17th worst last year.

"But that definitely doesn't mean that we are out of the woods," she says, noting that the EPA will put into place stricter standards for air quality at the end of the summer. She warns that the new standards could mean more "orange and red air quality days," and she urged residents and businesses to do their part to reduce emissions.

She says commuters can help by relying on the Missouri Department of Transportation's Gateway Guide website to avoid areas experiencing traffic tie-ups, high construction zones and other places where needless idling results in the release of more emissions into the air.

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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