Montana Public Radio

Air Quality & Idling: Dr. Starbuck Explains

Feb 4, 2021

Hi, I'm Dr. Jamison Starbuck, a naturopathic family physician. I'm here today with health tips for kids about idling and clean air.

We humans spend a lot of time on the move, busily doing activities which sadly can result in polluting the air. Even in Montana where we don't have giant cities and big industry, we have lots of air pollution.

You've seen inversions, I'm sure, when dirty brown clouds of air caused by car exhaust and other pollutants hover over our cities and valleys. And then there's smoky air from forest fires. Sometimes the air is so bad, it's actually unhealthy to play outside.

Credit iStock

Dirty air has poisons in it, things that hurt our lungs, our brain, our blood vessels and hearts. Dirty air can give kids asthma, headaches and coughs, and it can be really depressing.

What are kids supposed to do? Kids aren't responsible for air pollution. Children don't drive cars or run factories or start fires or spray poisons on the ground. Can kids really do anything to help? Yes, kids can.

Kids have brains and voices. They can learn things and do things and talk to grownups about clean air. A great place to start is with idling, spelt i-d-l-i-n-g.

Idling comes from the word "idle," which means lazy or not working. When a car or truck is "idling," that means the engine is running but the vehicle is standing still. Vehicles idle when they sit at a red light or in a traffic jam.

Your parents might not know that idling their vehicles is a bad idea. In the old days, vehicles needed to warm up before they were driven. But for the past 30 years, catalytic converters have replaced carburetors, so warming up a vehicle engine is not necessary.

In fact, warming up - also known as idling - a vehicle for more than 30 seconds, even in winter, is actually harmful to the engine. It also wastes gas and pollutes the air. Lots of parents don't know this.

On cold days, moms and dads are still doing what their parents did. They run out, start the car, then run in and do all sorts of things for quite a long time. Some parents make coffee, brush their teeth, get dressed, do the dishes - all while their vehicle is idling outside, polluting the air and damaging the engine.

Teach your parents about idling. You can go online and show your parents studies done by auto mechanics and by the U.S. Department of Energy about the bad effects of idling. Ask your parents not to run their vehicles when they don't need to, so that both the air and the engines will be healthier.

You can also make choices of your own that will reduce air pollution. Sometimes say no to rides in the car. Ask your parents to help you safely walk, ride a bike or take the bus to school. You might have to get up earlier or get an older kid or adult to join you, but getting somewhere on your own two feet can help you be independent and strong. And it feels good to know you are helping keep the air clean.

Ask your parents to turn the engine off while you wait at the drive-up window at the bank, or while they run inside to do a quick errand. Unless it's extremely cold or extremely hot, most kids are OK in the car for a few minutes without the engine running to provide heat or air conditioning.

Keep a big sleeping bag in your car so you can bundle up, just like you do when you're camping on a cold day. In the summer, park in the shade or go inside with your parents.

Nobody really loves having someone else tell them what to do, so don't be bossy when you tell your mom and dad about idling. Be kind and thoughtful. Help them see that new habits and a few simple changes can help make the air better for everyone.

I'm Dr. Jamison Starbuck, and I'm wishing you well.