Beyond Freeways II: The Beast that Eats Our Children

…Health Effects of the 710 Freeway

By Justin Gerdes | Photograph and additional reporting by Leila Dee Dougan | Translations by Richard Risemberg

Yolanda Lopez lives one block from Cesar Chavez Park and the neighboring Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Long Beach, California. The park is a postage stamp of green set amidst an otherwise dispiriting expanse of concrete and asphalt. For Lopez, the park is a sanctuary; she walks and exercises there every day.

Just beyond the fences of the park and school, over 1,000 diesel trucks per hour thunder past on the 710 Freeway heading to and from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Exposure to air pollution coming from ships docked at the ports, and from trucks plying the freeway, is an ongoing threat to the health of area residents. Lopez has one defective heart valve and recently started having trouble with another. Doctors told her the problems are caused by pollution.

Doctors have also found spots on her lung. “They asked me if I smoke, if I drank a lot, if I work someplace where I could have gotten these. They decided it was the pollution causing it,” she says.

Lopez’s 32-year-old daughter has struggled with asthma her entire life; breathing problems have forced her to the emergency room many times. “The pollution doesn’t just affect my daughter,” Lopez says. She works with autistic children. The kids are always getting sick, which affects her a great deal.

“It is affecting all the young people living around here,” she goes on, “because the school the kids go to is right here next to the 710, and that is also where they play sports. And many schools bring their kids here to the park to play.”

Lopez is among the fortunate few in the neighborhood with health insurance. “Thank God I qualify for coverage. At first they didn’t want to give me a cardiologist in the area, but now I’ve got one.”

“I don’t have any problem paying for my treatment,” she adds. “But a lot of other people don’t have insurance. And, with the kids, you never know when they will have an asthma attack; it can be triggered by stress, by sadness, by happiness, by anger. All kinds of things can trigger an asthma attack. That is very dangerous for them.”

Martha Sandoval’s story is much the same. Her 11-year-old son, Christopher, attends Cesar Chavez Elementary School. Christopher, she says, is a very bright boy who loves to read and is good at math. He also likes basketball and studied karate for four years. Like Yolanda Lopez’s daughter, he suffers from asthma. “Whenever he runs any distance, he has an asthma attack. He’s often missed practice because of his asthma,” says Sandoval.

Four or five times a year, asthma attacks force him to the emergency room. “When he catches cold and his asthma acts up he has to stay home from school for two or three days and he has to use the machine so he can breathe,” says Sandoval. The asthma treatments are quite expensive. “You have to buy the machine, and you have to buy the medications. Plus, he has to carry an inhaler and use it all the time.”

The Human Toll

The burden borne by Yolanda Lopez, Martha Sandoval, and others living in proximity to the 710 Freeway–many of them low-income people of color–is a distressingly familiar one. Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles notes that children of color in California are three times more likely than white children to live in areas with high traffic densities; that African American children in Los Angeles County are twice as likely to be diagnosed with or suffer from asthma, or to have experienced an asthma attack, within the last year than all other ethnicities; and that African American and Latino children attending Los Angeles Unified School District schools have a higher lifetime cancer risk from exposure to air pollution than children from other communities.

A growing body of research, including pioneering studies led by Andrea Hricko, Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, has established that human exposure to particulates, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and other air pollutants is linked to increased incidence of health problems and mortality, especially for those living near freeways.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) estimates that particulates from freight movement contribute to 3,700 premature deaths in the state annually. A study published by Environmental Health Perspectives in November 2013 found that an estimated 6% of lung cancer deaths in the United States and the United Kingdom may be due to exposure to diesel engine exhaust. The same study found that career-long exposure to diesel engine exhaust leaves truckers with a lifetime risk of deadly lung cancer nearly 70 times higher than the risk considered acceptable under U.S. occupational standards.

In June 2012, the World Health Organization classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans. Recent studies have also linked exposure to air pollution to heart disease, low birth weight and smaller head circumference in babies, autism, and bowel disease.

No one is more at risk of adverse health impacts than members of vulnerable populations living near ports and freeways. A 2009 study co-authored by Andrea Hricko found that 9% of all childhood asthma cases in Long Beach were attributed to living near high-traffic corridors. The authors cited a health risk assessment conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and CARB that found the largest carcinogenic risk from exposure to diesel engine exhaust and other airborne toxins in the Los Angeles basin occurred in Long Beach. Results from the Keck School’s more than decade-long Children’s Health Study confirmed that children living in high-pollution areas like the I-710 corridor “suffer reduced growth of lung function, asthma exacerbations, more school absences, and new onset asthma.”

Monitoring Air Quality Near Freeways

Despite the mounting evidence that proximity to ports and freeways exposes nearby residents to chronic illnesses and even premature death, regulators in California and the rest of the United States had not been required to locate air quality monitoring stations near major roadways. The focus, instead, has been to locate the stations to ensure geographic coverage to determine if regions were in compliance with state and federal air quality standards.

But under a rule announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in August 2013, four air quality monitoring stations will be installed within 160 feet of high-traffic roadways in 100 large metropolitan areas, including the Los Angeles basin, beginning in January 2014. Environmental advocates, including Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, sued the EPA last year to force the agency to require that air quality monitoring stations be installed adjacent to Southern California freeways.

The Los Angeles Times reported in August that none of the South Coast air district’s 35 permanent air quality monitoring stations is located close to a freeway. The new monitoring stations, which will measure nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulates, must be in place by 2017. Environmental and community advocates told me they will push SCAQMD officials to install one of the new stations along the 710 Freeway.

Philip Fine, an official with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, told The Press-Enterprise (Riverside), he expects the new freeway-adjacent monitoring stations to record higher levels of particulates, which could make it even harder for the Los Angeles area to meet state and federal standards for fine particles.

“Getting particulate monitors near roadways is going to be a game changer,” Adrian Martinez, staff attorney with Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, told me. “In a place like the L.A. region, where you have more than 1.2 million people living in close proximity to these major roadways, it’s a significant issue. It’s a self-imposed blind spot from the agencies; they aren’t focusing on the right thing, and this will force them to focus.”

Martinez and Angelo Logan, Executive Director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, both say they expect the monitoring stations to record air pollution concentrations high enough to compel local officials to implement additional mitigation measures, especially for particulates. “The air monitoring stations along the freeway will have significant data that will inform a whole variety of issues–one of those being the 710 Freeway,” says Logan. “The air monitors will help to inform planning decisions, specifically transportation planning decisions, at the local, regional, and federal level.”

Writing in September 2013 at the Earthjustice blog, Adrian Martinez highlighted a new paper published by Gregory M. Rowangould, a researcher at the University of New Mexico. Rowangould found that 19.3% of the U.S. population and 40% of Californians–the highest share of any state–live within 500 meters of high-volume roads. Rowangould also confirmed what the new EPA rule made clear, that “very few [air quality] monitors are placed near roads with the highest traffic volumes.”

“As the paper points out,” wrote Martinez, “the lack of monitors near major roadways is potentially hiding violations of clean air standards–otherwise known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Once identified, a region must reduce emissions and ‘perform more detailed air quality analysis when developing transportation plans.’ Thus, until we get these monitors in place to understand the extent of the pollution problem near highways, our regulators are allowing regions to mask their duties to bring clean air to highway adjacent residents.”

The implications for major infrastructure projects, such as proposals to expand the I-710 Freeway and extend SR-710, are clear: If, as expected, the new monitoring stations record elevated particulate levels, the viability of projects that cannot be expected to reduce air pollution is put into question.

 Progress Welcome, But Not Enough

Further changes to goods movement are also forthcoming from the California Air Resources Board. In the updated AB32 Scoping Plan, released in October 2013, CARB said the agency is developing a 2014 Sustainable Freight Strategy [PDF, p. 24] targeting emissions reductions from freight transport in California, including emissions from trucks, ships, port activities, and locomotives. Under consideration are measures intended to “require or further promote the use of zero emission trucks or other zero emission technologies to transport intermodal containers from marine ports to near-dock railyards by 2020 in the South Coast and Bay Area.” The measures could include a combination of CARB regulations, local air district indirect source rules, lease conditions, port tariffs, and incentive contracts.

The plans to implement more aggressive measures to clean up freight transport are an extension of policies that over a decade have secured real and significant improvements in air quality in the Los Angeles basin. Annual concentrations of fine particles in the region have dropped by approximately 50% since 2000 [PDF].

According to a Coordinating Research Council study [PDF] released in December 2013, testing of model year 2010 heavy-duty engines from three major manufacturers found that emissions of nitrogen dioxide–a smog precursor–were down 99% compared with 2004 engines and came in 61% below a 2010 EPA standard. Emissions of particulates were also down 99% compared with 2004 models.

CARB regulations requires owners of most heavy-duty diesel trucks in California to install soot filters or upgrade to newer models with filters by January 1, 2014. Nearly all trucks must install the filters by January 1, 2016. According to CARB, some 140,000 of the 260,000 heavy trucks registered in California are already compliant with the soot filter requirement.

An incentive program launched by CARB in 1998 has replaced or upgraded 48,000 diesel engines. A bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2013 extends funding for the program through 2023.

In August 2013, the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles each reported emissions at the lowest levels since the ports launched a joint clean air action plan in 2006. The Port of Long Beach reported that diesel particulates, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides had declined by 81%, 54%, and 88% respectively from 2005 levels. The Port of Los Angeles, meanwhile, reported declines of 79% for diesel particulates, 56% for nitrogen oxides, and 88% for sulfur oxides from 2005 levels.

The ports’ Clean Truck Program bans trucks with pre-2007 engines from servicing the ports. By the end of 2013, all 13 international cargo terminals at the ports will be able to power docked ships with electricity. Under CARB rules, beginning in January 1, 2014, at least 50% of ships docking at California ports must shut down their engines and plug into shore power while docked. By 2020, 80% of docked ships must run on electricity. In August of 2012, new requirements forced ships to switch to low-sulfur fuel within 200 miles of the North America coastline.

It just isn’t enough. Community advocates like Jessica Tovar, Project Manager, Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, acknowledge the air quality gains of recent years. But she notes that the four-county Los Angeles basin also received an “F” in the American Lung Association’s 2013 “State of the Air” report card and remains among the most polluted regions in the country.

“As we find more studies about what the air pollution impacts are,” she says, “community members are still really worried about it. If it’s not going to be those trucks, is it the rail yards? Is it the refineries? Is it the vessels coming into the ports? When you hear people talk about comparing 20 years ago, they will say, ‘Oh, you can see a little better now. But it’s not enough.’ They’re just over-stimulated with this pollution.”

Asked what she and her neighbors think about plans to widen the 710 Freeway, Yolanda Lopez says, “Well, we are against it. What we want is clean air. That is what we are fighting for. They can go ahead with their project, but they have to listen to us and hear what we need. They can do all the planning they want, but we want them to put in electric transport instead of more diesel.” Caltrans and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) have included a zero-emissions truck corridor among the alternatives under consideration to move freight in the proposed I-710 Corridor Project.

“We know they want to widen it, but in our community we don’t want that to happen,” says Martha Sandoval. “If they widen the 710, there will be even more pollution, and it will affect the children that go to school near the freeway even more. They can widen as long as they do something to clean up the air and use cleaner trucks.”

“One thing to reiterate,” Adrian Martinez told me, “is the [transportation] agencies have bought into this zero-emissions [corridor], and trying to figure out how it would work. Community groups deserve a lot of the credit for that, because it was constant struggle and pushing on this issue. Unless there was that constant attention from all these groups, the project wouldn’t be where it is. Some of the air agencies also deserve a lot of the credit, like the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The community groups have set this as a big issue and just consistently raised it: We need clean air. We need zero emissions. It has to be part of the project, not just some aspirational goal.”

Beyond Freeways: Introduction
Part I: Birth of an Asphalt Monster

NEXT: Part III: Riding to the Rescue
Part IV: The Price to Pay

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About Contributing

Once upon a time, environmentalists lived in the forests, while the many of the rest of us moved the suburbs to be near the forests. Today we’re on our way back. Living near nature is an attractive notion, but many who tried it found nature soon vanished and they were left isolated. For both environmental and social reasons, living in the suburbs or the forest is not sustainable. Today we know cities are good for people and for forests. We know that the less land each of us occupies, the more space there will be for nature. In a city, we have a smaller footprint. Living in a city isn’t only good for the planet, it’s good for all of us. When home, work, shopping end entertainment are close, it encourages walking and promotes the active lifestyle that keeps us healthy. The New Colonist is about moving in from the suburbs, moving into and reclaiming towns and cities that have been depopulated, and building more housing in healthy cities. It’s about building smarter and closer-in new developments; building transit-oriented, mixed-use developments in new communities, and bringing more transportation options to communities where a car is presently the only option. Sustainable city living–chronicling the return from the suburban diaspora–is the focus of …Move In. City Life is good for you. It’s good for the your health. It’s good for the planet. Eric Miller Richard Risemberg