A school bus passes by the Sharswood George School on 2nd and Wolf streets in South Philadelphia. (Nathan Morris for Billy Penn)

This year, my daughter is entering 9th grade and taking the bus alone to her new high school in South Philadelphia.

Aside from the usual feelings parents have during back-to-school season, especially in a year when my child is making a huge transition, I have added concerns. Like me, my daughter has asthma, and pollution from cars and trucks — including the diesel-powered SEPTA bus she will take to school every day – can exacerbate her symptoms and trigger dangerous asthma attacks.

My daughter and I are, unfortunately, not alone. We share this disease with more than 25 million Americans, including 21% of Philadelphia’s children. As a parent, it has been painful to watch my daughter spend weeks recovering from a mild cold, or to hear her say that she was afraid to run with her friends at school because she didn’t want to trigger an attack.

Our family does not own a car and has no plans to buy one, but that doesn’t mean we’re protected from tailpipe pollution. On the contrary, we breathe in pollutants every time we go outside. If anything exacerbates Philly’s already poor air quality — like a heat wave, for example — it could mean rearranging an entire day, skipping a trip to the store, or avoiding after-school activities that require extra time walking. These considerations make our lives tricky when we have to get to work and school on foot or via public transportation.

Philadelphia recently received another “F” for air quality in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report because our air is so unhealthy. And this pollution is not equitably distributed — nationwide, people of color are over three times more likely to be breathing polluted air than white people. Black and Latino children in Philadelphia are hospitalized for asthma at roughly five times the rate of their white peers.

In Philly, the heavy-duty transportation sector — which includes delivery trucks and semis, construction vehicles, and diesel school and SEPTA buses — is one of the leading sources of unhealthy air pollution. These emissions disproportionately impact fenceline communities across Philadelphia who live near major trucking corridors like I-95, shipping ports, and local distribution hubs.

While trucks and buses only account for 3.5% of vehicles on the road, they are responsible for nearly 22 % of all greenhouse gas emissions from road vehicles. In fact, emissions from heavy-duty vehicles are the fastest growing source of climate-harming greenhouse gas emissions, and the number of truck miles traveled on the nation’s roads is forecast to continue to grow significantly in the coming decades. 

This is why it is so vitally important that the EPA and the Biden administration finalize the strongest standards possible to cut climate and air pollution from trucks and cars as swiftly as possible. Strong standards will clean up our air, protect public health, cut the carbon emissions that are fueling the climate crisis, and put us on a path to a zero emission transportation future. 

With strong standards to protect Americans from tailpipe pollution, Philadelphians like me and my daughter will be able to breathe easier, as will the more than 135 million people in Philly and across the country who live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Our health and safety can not wait.

Brooke Petry and her daughter live in South Philadelphia. She is Moms Clean Air Force’s Field Organizer for eastern Pennsylvania.