The PCC urges Austin ISD to act on I-35 + kids’ health

Below is our open letter to the Austin Independent School District’s Board of Trustees, urging them to raise awareness of I-35’s health impacts on kids living and attending school near the highway. If you would like to voice your concerns as an individual, send an email to trustees [at] austinisd [dot] org

Dear AISD Trustees Hunter, Zapata, Foster, Whitley Chu, Boswell, Gonzales, Kauffman, Lugo, and Singh,

I am writing to you on behalf of The Parents’ Climate Community, a grassroots group of Austin caregivers connecting around local climate action. We would like to schedule a meeting with the Board to discuss our concerns about how the proposed I-35 expansion through Austin will affect our kids’ health. 

Today’s date is significant: it marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a 9-year-old with asthma who lived near a major arterial in Southeast London. Ella is the first person in the world whose death certificate lists air pollution as a cause of death. One way that we can honor Ella’s life is to prevent kids’ exposure to harmful traffic emissions closer to home in Austin. 

Linked in this email is a map of over 80 daycares and schools within .3 miles of I-35. The map includes a dozen AISD campuses, seven of them elementary schools. There is a well documented link between exposure to traffic pollution and asthma risk in children. According to Beth Israel Medical Center, “Children living within a football field’s length of major roadways had nearly three times the odds of pediatric asthma compared to children who lived four times farther away.” 

Inequity also plays a role, with children of color in our city experiencing more severe forms of respiratory illness.  A 2020 article from The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found, for example, that “Austin-Travis County and US Black children were 3.5 and 3.3 times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than their respective White counterparts.” 

Aside from the air-pollution impacts, we are also concerned about the long-term physical and mental health consequences of our collective inaction on the climate crisis. At a time when journals like The Lancet have reported widespread climate anxiety among teens globally, we should be removing freeways and other carbon infrastructure rather than expanding them. Our own position is that slowing down the build process to study alternatives like burying the highway or replacing I-35 with an urban boulevard will benefit Austin kids in the long-term. It will also repair trust in young people, like those protesting in today’s I-35 Youth Day of Action, who feel that adults are betraying their future.

While we realize that the Board may be unable to take a formal position on I-35, we urge you to do all you can to raise awareness of the enormous health and climate impacts of today’s I-35 and the proposed expansion, and help local leaders take a morally correct stance on expansion. Furthermore, the district might consider more informal steps to protect its students’ health:

  • What plans, for instance, does the district have to raise awareness and educate parents and guardians on how construction debris and roadway pollution will impact children attending AISD schools near I-35? 
  • How, if at all, might AISD work with families to monitor and/or mitigate the impacts of students’ exposure to 6-10 years of highway construction?

We would like to work together with AISD’s leadership to address the potential harm of an expanded I-35 to young Austinites. We hope to increase awareness and education of AISD parents and guardians and provide them with concrete ways to protect their children’s health.

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