The government will provide $7 million in rebates to either replace or retrofit 400 older diesel school buses in 35 states.

School buses may be sickening some students. Pollution from diesel-powered buses has been linked to higher rates of absenteeism and reduced lung function in kids.

The Environmental Protection Agency took the latest in several steps Friday aimed at minimizing the impact of these rolling health threats. Federal officials said the government will provide $7 million in rebates to either replace or retrofit 400 older diesel school buses in 35 states. Cleaner buses will reduce pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and particulate matter that cause asthma and lung damage.

"Schools and other organizations that install clean diesel technology are doing more than just saving money," said Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality. "They're creating cleaner, healthier air for children and all community residents."

Costs of a new school bus can run between approximately $75,000 and $85,000, and fleets replacing buses with engines older than 2006 can receive rebates of between $15,000 and $25,000 depending on the size of the bus. This is the third round of the EPA's rebate program, and this year, applicants also have an option of retrofitting buses with diesel oxidation catalysts plus closed crankcase ventilation systems, which reduce toxic emissions.

Those toxic emissions, which include nitrogen oxides, can sicken students and exacerbate illnesses in those with chronic conditions like asthma, according to a joint study released by the University of Michigan and University of Washington earlier this year. Among the nation's 25 million children who ride school buses, researchers found reduced diesel emissions could result in 14 million fewer absences from school per year.

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"Our research also suggests that children riding buses with cleaner fuels and technologies may experience better lung development as compared to those riding dirtier buses."

Air quality improvements would benefit all children, but especially those who have asthma. The university researchers say a change to ultra low sulfur diesel reduced a marker for lung inflammation by 16 percent in an overall study group, and 20 to 31 percent among children with asthma, depending on the severity. In a written statement, Sara Adar, the study's lead author, said, "Our research also suggests that children riding buses with cleaner fuels and technologies may experience better lung development as compared to those riding dirtier buses."

Researchers tracked 275 elementary school children in Washington who rode buses to and from school before and after their districts adopted cleaner fuels and technologies, according to the University of Michigan. Air pollution was measured during 597 trips on 188 school buses over a four-year period. Children were checked monthly for lung function and inflammation and absences from the schools were recorded.

The latest round of the EPA's rebate program will be parceled to 85 school bus fleets. Rebates come from funding in the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, which the agency says has reduced emissions in approximately 60,000 engines.

It's the second time in recent weeks a federal agency has focused on health and safety issues in school buses. In November, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reversed previous rulings and officially recommended every school bus come equipped with three-point seat belts, something bus manufacturers have opposed for decades.

While the EPA's efforts largely involve cleaning up existing diesel technology, others are looking for alternate power sources for school buses. This year, three California school districts experimented with retrofitted zero-emissions buses equipped with electric battery packs. After their appointed rounds are complete, the school buses, at least in theory, could make money for fleet owners by charging at off-peak hours and then selling energy back to power companies at higher prices during high-demand times.

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