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Volkswagen can do right by replacing diesel-run school buses, Johns Hopkins experts write

Here's one idea for how Volkswagen could step up to deal with its emissions scandal in the United States: Replace our old school buses.

That's the eye-for-an-eye solution two experts from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggested in a recent New York Times op-ed, arguing that Volkswagen could take a meaningful move to clean up the environment—and its image—by helping the U.S. turn over the 250,000-some school buses that still run on diesel fuel.

Those pre-2007 buses, manufactured before stricter emissions standards took effect, are causing harm not only by polluting the air but also "directly sickening children," write Joshua Sharfstein, associate dean of health practice and training at the Bloomberg School, and Frances Phillips, an associate in the school's Department of Health Policy and Management. Both are also former Maryland state public health officials.

Diesel-run buses emit a toxic mix of gases associated with asthma, lung disease, and premature death, and studies have found that children's health improves when they're not riding in them.

Volkswagen, of course, has nothing to do with old U.S. school buses, but maybe now it should, the authors argue. The connection is sensible given the environmental uproar the German automaker now faces after revelations that it programmed diesel engines in millions of cars worldwide to give false readings on nitrogen oxide output.

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By replacing old school buses, in addition to fixing the affected cars, Volkswagen can make up for the damage it did to the environment and improve the lives of many thousands of children in the process. Eventually, the company would be able to say that its net impact on air pollution in the United States, at least as measured by nitrogen oxides, was actually negative.

Volkswagen currently faces a potential $20 billion in fines in a lawsuit from the Environmental Protection Agency. Crunching the numbers with Hopkins professor Kirsten Koehler, Phillips and Sharfstein estimate the company could pay off 10 percent of that, and make up for 46,000 tons of nitrogen oxides from its polluting vehicles, by replacing 25,000 school buses.

And if Volkswagen doesn't step up to do so on its own, they write, forcing that action would be a "punishment that fits the crime."

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