New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker will introduce a bill aimed at improving air quality in schools, with a focus on needy districts in highly polluted areas, such as Newark.

The Clean Air, Sharp Minds Act, which Booker, a Democrat and former Newark mayor, is sponsoring in conjunction with Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, would provide grants to schools for purchasing, installing, and maintaining air filters. Should the bill pass, $20 million in grants would be given over three years to at least 175 schools. All U.S. public schools would be eligible, with priority given to those most in need. 

“In Newark, we have one of the highest rates of child asthma in the country and this impacts not just our children’s physical health, it impacts their academic performance and their family’s economic well-being,” Booker said in a statement. “This bill is a common-sense way to deliver immediate help to students and their parents struggling every day with poor air quality in their schools.”

Booker’s press release on the bill cited two Chalkbeat articles on air pollution and asthma.

One in every four Newark children lives with asthma — a rate three times higher than the national average. 

Better school air quality has been shown to improve test scores. Poor indoor air quality increases the risk of severe asthma attacks and allergic reactions, and asthma is the leading cause of missed school days in the country. Newark Superintendent Roger León has cited asthma as one of four health issues that impede student achievement in the district; the chronic respiratory illness is one of the leading causes of absenteeism in Newark. 

Air pollution also disproportionately impacts students of color. Schools serving largely low-income students of color are three times more likely than those serving predominantly white students to be located near highways, which are a major source of air pollution. In Newark, where semi-trucks thunder down city streets on a daily basis, children with asthma are hospitalized at 30 times the national rate. In addition, New Jersey’s air quality has been named one of the worst in the nation

Although asthma-related deaths are rare in children, Newark experienced an average of one death a year from 2010 to 2017, when there were eight asthma-related deaths among Newark minors, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. Asthma mortality rates are higher for people of color and people living in low-income communities, as many Newark residents are. 

Experts say improving building conditions, along with staff training and parental awareness, can help curb asthma rates and hospitalizations. Mold, dust mites, and other pests — conditions that can be found in some school buildings — can all trigger asthma episodes. There’s currently no documented link between Newark children’s deaths and school conditions, but Newark parents have complained of classroom air quality.

“I don’t think the air quality was the best in the school. The school was old and dusty, and he had more complaints during school than when he was home,” said Takua Anderson, whose son, T’Kai, died of a severe asthma attack in October 2016. While her son died at home, she said in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat that she fears school building conditions contributed to his asthma. “My son was suffering.”

Dozens of Newark’s crumbling schools require major fixes, and indoor air quality expert Arthur Pierfy, who regularly conducts air quality trainings throughout the state, said older school buildings in Newark have outdated air filtration systems.

“The system hasn’t been upgraded for the amount of occupants that are now living and working in those buildings. It exists and works, but the more people you throw in the room, the worse people will feel,” Pierfy, a member of the environmental education organization New Jersey Association of Designated Persons, said. “A lot of inner-city schools … haven’t had the luxury of having things rebuilt, and there’s only so much you can budget for. This bill is absolutely needed in Newark.”

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