By Adrian Martinez, Project Attorney, Southern California Air Team, NRDC, Santa Monica Posted on Thursday 12th November 2009
A new study about the staggering impacts of highway and ship pollution was released by a team of scientists and academics, including some of the most pioneering researchers on issues of health related impacts from degraded air quality. The study provides a localized look at the impacts of air pollution, especially from freight facilities. Using the health indicator of childhood asthma, the study examines how much proximity to traffic and pollution from ship emissions drive asthma incidents. The communities chosen were Long Beach, an area that has long been on the front lines of the battle to protect community health from the massive quantities of air pollution spewed by the nation's two largest ports (the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach), and Riverside, a community that has become home to sprawling warehouses that serve as magnets for thousands upon thousands of diesel trucks rumbling through this community each and every day. The results of this study should be a wake-up call to the enablers of massive freight expansion who don't deal with all the negative consequences.
Rob McConnell, principal investigator on the study and professor of preventative medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine, noted recently that:
The traditional approach to estimating the burden of air pollution-related disease has markedly underestimated the true effect...Our results indicate that there is a substantial proportion of childhood asthma that may be caused by living within 75 meters (81 yards) of a major road in Long Beach and Riverside. This results in a much larger impact of air pollution on asthma symptoms and health care use than previously appreciated. This is also one of the first studies to quantify the contribution of ship emissions to the childhood asthma burden.
In fact, NRDC, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, the Coalition for a Safe Environment and the Endangered Habitats League are currently mired in litigation against the Environmental Protection Agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Southern California Association of Governments on the issue of protecting the 1.5 million near highway residents in the Los Angeles area from harmful air pollution impacts. Read more about that effort here.
The study also found that 21% of all asthma incidents in Long Beach were caused by the contribution of nitrogen dioxide levels from ships. As shipping interests have fought relentlessly against efforts to clean up their filthy engines and fuels over the decades, this fact becomes even more disturbing.
This study reminds us that unfettered economic exploitation of an area can have immense consequences on local health, including our most important populations--children. Freight and public health protections can coincide, but we need to end the industry obstructionism and lack of forward thinking that is currently infecting our decision-makers. Efforts such as pushing forward with alternative transportation systems championed by the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and the South Coast Air Quality Management District's push for electrification of our rail lines are the types of efforts we need to keep moving forward. Highway widening projects (e.g. the proposed 14 lane expansion of the I-710 and the State Route 47 project, which creates a new diesel highway in the City of Wilmington) that ignore these near-highway communities should not be given so much attention.
All in all, the study ended with some very useful commentary on the application of the results of this study. It stated--
Our results demonstrate that the burden of asthma prevalence and exacerbation caused by traffic proximity can be substantial in communities with large numbers of homes in close proximity to major roadways. There is an urgent need for more detailed evaluation of the health consequences both of large-scale transportation infrastructure development and of port-related air pollution in areas that already have a high burden of disease associated with air pollution.
This should provide a call to action for all transportation planners that seek to expand freight facilities (e.g. the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, the California Department of Transportation, and other agencies). Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District must also implement policies to protect these most vulnerable near-highway communities from the deleterious impacts of air pollution. Business as usual is not working, and if we are going to expand, these projects must embrace modern low pollution technologies. If we fail in this respect, our future generations will end up spending too much time sucking on inhalers and in the hospital instead of schools. This is an untenable result.
* * * This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard.
Adrian Martinez serves as a project attorney for The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Southern California Air Team in Santa Monica, Calif. NRDC is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the environment, people and animals. NRDC was founded in 1970 and is comprised of more than 300 lawyers, scientists and policy experts, with more than one million members and e-activists.