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Do you idle your car? Hamilton students in air quality program want you to stop

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Ten-year-old Owen Berger says ever since he participated in a program teaching Hamilton students about air quality and the impact of vehicular pollution, he can’t help notice cars idling everywhere he goes.

“I do see more cars stopped and still running,” said the Grade 5 student at Earl Kitchener Elementary School in the city’s Kirkendall neighbourhood. “Sometimes I tell my parents to turn the car off when we’re stopped.”

His classmate, Miriam Biro, also 10, is quick to say where she sees people idling their cars the most: “Definitely [during] drop-off and pickup for school.”

The children’s class was one of several across the city to take part in the Fresh Air for Kids program, offered by non-profit Green Venture and Corr Research, this school year.

The program teaches students about air quality, helps them identify high-pollution areas in their own neighbourhoods (Hint: those school drop-off and pickup areas are way up there), and teaches them how to educate others in their lives, often their parents, to turn cars off when they’re not moving.

Miriam Biro, a Grade 5 student at Earl Kitchener Elementary School, says she often sees parents with their cars running in front of the school. (Saira Peesker/CBC)

Mackenzie Whitten, an environmental education program co-ordinator at Green Venture who facilitates the program, said children are among the groups whose health is most at risk by poor air quality, but they have little control over how much pollution is created in their midst.

That’s why the program empowers them to speak to the people in their lives who do, Whitten said.

“If we get the students at the schools to care about air quality and to work on the idling cars around them, then that’s a kind of area of purview for them that they’re going to be stewarding,” he said. “If every school in Hamilton had their own team of people working to stop cars from idling, then it wouldn’t be as big of a problem.”

He said in many schools, the class that participates in Fresh Air for Kids will go on to educate other classes in their school about what they learned.

The program also involves measuring the air quality around participants’ schools. The findings are routinely worse during school pickup times while parents are idling, said Whitten: “It’s very, very bad.”

It also includes a project where students create an anti-idling campaign, which sometimes takes the form of posters or video content made by the students.

Whitten said he was prepared to have to convince the students to care about an issue he is so passionate about, but it doesn’t take much to convince most children.

“Most of the time they’re super excited about it and they think it’s just as important as you do.” 

‘It would be great if people followed that specific bylaw’

Like many cities across Canada, Hamilton has an anti-idling bylaw that prohibits parked cars from stopping for more than a few minutes. In Hamilton, the limit is three minutes — other city limits range from one to five minutes; some have no limits at all or there are only limits on trucks.

Hamilton’s bylaw has several loopholes, allowing idling when temperatures are above 27 C or below 5 C. The bylaw also permits certain municipal and emergency vehicles to run while parked. The fine is $100.

Children sit outside around a piece of paper painting.
Students at Earl Kitchener Public School in Hamilton paint an anti-idling banner, part of the Fresh Air for Kids program. (Submitted by Fresh Air for Kids)

In the first decade or so after the bylaw was created in 2007, the city said no one had been successfully charged with idling in Hamilton. 

In 2020, city council approved an amendment to the bylaw that transferred enforcement from bylaw officers to the municipal parking division, a move it said would allow idlers to be ticketed more quickly.

That year, 26 penalties were issued, said city spokesperson James Berry on Thursday. However, each year since has seen successively fewer tickets issued, with 20 in 2021, 18 in 2022 and 11 so far in 2023. 

Adults ‘more likely to comply’ if ask is from children

With bylaw enforcement beyond the program’s purview, it instead focuses on developing environmental awareness among children that they will hopefully carry for their lives, said Heather Govender, Green Venture’s environmental education program manager. 

“So much of who we are is formed when we’re children,” she said, adding, “I guess the other aspect of it is when adults hear a request to stop idling, they’re way more likely to comply if it comes from adorable little children than if it comes from a bunch of grownups saying, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’

“When kids go out with signs like, ‘Young lungs at work’ or ‘Our [kindergarten playground] is right next to this and we’re breathing in your car fumes,’ that sends a much more powerful message to the grownups who do idle [near] the school yards.”

A kid wearing sunglasses sits in front of the Earl Kitchener school sign and smiles.
Owen Berger, 10, notices cars idling all the time now that he has learned about it from the Fresh Air for Kids program. (Saira Peesker/CBC)

Projects made by Fresh Air for Kids participants were exhibited Wednesday at a public event at Bernie Custis Secondary School to mark national Clean Air Day.

The same day, Hamilton experienced such bad air quality from wildfire smoke that Environment Canada encouraged people to wear N95 masks outdoors and stay inside as much as possible.

Owen, one of the Grade 5 students, said he hoped the poor air quality that day would serve as a motivator for people to do more to slow climate change.

“I think it’s kind of fitting almost, to remind us this is what happens if we don’t try and stop all of this — so try and stop all of this.” 

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