Over the past 10 years in New Haven's public schools, the high school dropout rate has been cut in half, the number of juniors and seniors taking AP classes has tripled and the percentage of kids in pre-K programs has risen from 50 percent to 73 percent. Statistics like this have given us reason to celebrate, but not all the numbers are as encouraging
Each year for the past decade, the number of school-age children in New Haven with asthma has increased 2 percent. Now at 18 percent, the city has the highest diagnosed rate in Connecticut. Sadly the rest of the state isn't far behind; more than 10 percent of children in Connecticut have asthma.
It would be easy - and not entirely unfair - to blame the factories and power plants in the Midwest for our health crisis. After all, pollution from Ohio and Illinois drifts hundreds of miles and contributes to this region's poor air quality. But it would be a mistake to lay the blame entirely on out-of-state sources. We must take responsibility for our own actions that harm our children. To start, we should pass the statewide Diesel Reduction Plan, which was just approved by the state Senate last week and is now in the House.
The Senate plan calls for an 85 percent reduction of diesel particulates from transit buses by 2010, a strategy to reduce toxic emissions from school buses, and a crackdown on emissions from construction equipment at large state projects. State Sen. Martin Looney and Rep. Juan Candelaria, both from New Haven, joined with Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams to sponsor the legislation. They've seen firsthand what New Haven has been doing for years to reduce toxic air emissions.
New Haven was the first city in the state to commit to a goal of using 20 percent renewable energy by 2010. We'll achieve that ambitious goal by relying on innovative projects, including installing the state's largest solar-powered project on top of our newest Magnet School. The Barnard School solar panels will supply nearly 20 percent of the school's annual electricity needs.
Last year, New Haven began one of the largest school bus retrofitting projects in the state. To date, 180 buses have been equipped with special mufflers that reduce emissions by up to 40 percent. In addition, all our buses, as well as all city diesel vehicles, run on ultra low-sulfur diesel, which is 10 percent cleaner-burning than regular diesel.
We're also becoming the hybrid capital of Connecticut. I suppose it started when I replaced my gas-guzzling SUV with a hybrid that lowered my vehicle's toxic emissions by 90 percent. Soon after, the city began converting its passenger fleet to hybrid vehicles. In a matter of weeks, New Haven will be the first city in the Eastern U.S. to allow free downtown parking for hybrid vehicles.
Despite all this, New Haven's children need more help. They need a statewide commitment that will address air quality across Connecticut and serve as a model for other states in the region. There are some areas in which the state Department of Transportation is making real progress. It retrofitted the Connecticut Transit bus fleet in Stamford, equipping the vehicles with filters that reduce fine particulate matter emissions by more than 90 percent. Unfortunately, residents in Hartford, Waterbury, Norwich and New Haven are still waiting for similar modifications for their buses.
Enacting these changes will cost money but it will pale in comparison to the long-term cost of doing nothing. A Connecticut-based organization, Environment Northeast, recently released a study quantifying the health impacts of diesel exhaust. The study concluded that in Connecticut alone, diesel particulate matter causes more than 200 premature deaths, 4,000 asthma attacks, and 24,000 workdays lost annually. The non-fatal impacts alone cost the Connecticut economy more than $100 million per year.
Earlier this legislative session, I testified before the state Transportation Committee asking it to allow hybrid cars, occupied by one person, in the HOV lanes - something a handful of other states have done with great success. As part of my testimony, I told the legislators about the thousands of New Haven schoolchildren who suffer from asthma and the thousands more who will by the time they graduate. I did not pretend that changing the rules for HOV lanes would single-handedly reduce the number of children who develop asthma each year, but I did suggest that even the smallest ideas can fuel meaningful progress. Surely enacting this legislation that curbs diesel exhaust is a prerequisite if we are ever to achieve real change - something we can and must do.