The idle threat

Reporter Bryan Seymour

We've conducted tests across Australia showing children are breathing in toxic chemicals as they enter and leave school.

The threat has prompted laws in other countries to force parents to switch off their engines at drop-off and pick-up points.

Every weekday morning and every afternoon, in every city and town... We are putting our children in harm's way.

Vehicles idling at school drop-off and pick-up might seem harmless but simple tests we conducted in our major cities reveal just how dangerous idling emissions are.

"It's very like passive smoking actually, yeah, the chemicals involved are the same and the route of exposure is the same and the diseases are the same," said Associate Professor Adrian Barnett, who researches air pollution at the Queensland University of Technology. He has been trying to raise the alarm about school idling for years.

"We have carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, it's a really nasty soup of chemicals and there's a whole raft of effects that they can have," Professor Barnett said.

"We know that cars kill people, when there's accidents and there are massive campaigns about not drink driving, not texting but actually traffic pollution kills more people than all those problems put together."

Australia has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the world. Air pollution only adds to the problem of young, developing lungs being damaged, often permanently.

We enlisted professional air quality testers in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth…


At four Sydney schools, CO, NOx and Particulate Matter peaked at 30% above normal levels.


Toxic gases registered above background levels, especially poisonous, fine particles.


We recorded above average readings of co, no2 and particulate matter...


Testers from Curtin University recorded Carbon Monoxide, Nitric Oxides and Particulate Matter kerbside as children were arriving at and leaving school.

"It can impair general function, tiredness, nausea and lethargy and for kids who are in a learning environment, that's really important,' said Greens Senator Richard Di Natale.

The Senate Standing Committee for Community Affairs heard a submission last year in committee for regulations to be introduced here, like they have overseas, to force drivers to switch off their engine after one minute.

"Vehicle standards in Australia are quite lax compared to other countries and we need to do much better, in some European countries what we do see is many new vehicles which will turn off when the car stops and that's a very good thing," Senator Di Natale said.

"This is a very serious problem, we know that air pollution causes more deaths than the road toll in Australia," he said.

In the United States, Canada, Europe and the UK laws have been introduced to stop cars sitting alongside schools with their engines idling.

Most recently a bus company in Massachusetts was fined $33,000 for excessive idling at schools. Most countries have programs to educate and reduce idling emissions at schools.

"It's simply a case of people aren't aware of it, we need to and we need to make people aware that we can do something that is good for people's health and good for their hip pocket , and that's where awareness campaigns are really important," Senator Di Natale said.

Switching off can save you up $300 a year in fuel, it doesn't damage the engine and, to bust a popular myth, re-starting a car uses less fuel than leaving it running.

"I think the simplest thing they could do is just ask parents to turn their engines off, you probably don't have to redesign the system massively, it's just if you're a parent and you're sitting in your car and there are children right outside the car, turn your engine off," Professor Barnett said.

Story Links:

World Health Organisation Factsheet

Greens Senator Richard Di Natale

Transport for London - Anti Idling Toolkit:

Australian Senate Committee - Submission for anti-idling laws

Here are a few simple facts:

- Restarting your engine does not use more fuel than idling - according to the Consumer Energy Centre - idling for more than 10 seconds uses more fuel than restarting your car

- Idling your car is not the best way to warm your car in cold weather - the best way to warm up a car is to drive it

- Frequent restarting is not hard on the engine and battery - it has little impact on engine parts like the battery and starter motor.

- Excessive idling is hard on engines - excessive idling can damage cylinders, spark plugs and exhaust systems

- - An idling vehicle emits 20 times more pollution than one travelling at 30mph - by turning off your engine you can reduce pollution

- - Emissions from vehicles contribute to global warming - vehicle emissions contain carbon which mixes with air to form carbon dioxide, a major contributor to human-caused global warming.

- - Idling wastes fuel and money - every 10 minutes of engine idling wastes at least one-tenth of a litre of fuel

- - Air pollutants from an idling engine are respiratory irritants - these pollutants can increase asthma symptoms

- - Children breathe 50% more air per pound of body weight than adults - this makes children more vulnerable to the effects of pollution

What can you do to help?

- Walk, cycle or use public transport to travel to school

- Leave the car behind and use more active ways to travel to school - children and adults all benefit from being more physically active - use the school commute to improve your health and reduce pollution

- Park further away from the school - consider driving only part of the way to school and walking the rest - this reduces the amount of pollution at the school particularly at the school drop off and pick up points

- Turn off your engine - as a rough guide, if you are going to be parked for more than 30 seconds turn off your engine