By Stephanie M. Lee, September 15, 2013
Margaret Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, points to soot on a fan at her home.
In her West Oakland home, Margaret Gordon never opens the windows facing the streets.
From dawn to dusk, cars and trucks roar across the overhead stretch of Interstate 880 a few blocks away. Gordon has learned to sleep through the noise. But with her asthma, she cannot stand the exhaust fumes.
"I keep that window closed," said Gordon, 66, a 20-year resident and leader of a West Oakland environmental group. Otherwise, "eventually I would have a sore throat or congestion or my lungs would be congested, and I'd have to go to the doctor's."
Gordon knows that air pollution heightens the risk of asthma and other respiratory problems and that people who live near freeways are especially at risk. But data on those emissions are not currently tracked in the Bay Area.
That is about to change. Under new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements, air quality regulators will begin monitoring major roadways in Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose and other cities across the United States next year. Neighborhood and health advocacy groups will probably use the information to call for stricter air pollution regulations.
Right now, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has a system of more than 30 monitors throughout the nine Bay Area counties to measure air pollution in general areas, but none is located close to a busy traffic corridor. As a result, environmentalists say, the system overlooks the risks to people who, like tens of millions of Americans, live within 300 feet of major roads.
"What we've seen from epidemiologic studies is that populations near roadways tend to be more affected by the health consequences of pollution than populations away from freeways," said Eric Stevenson, director of technical services for the Bay Area air district.
3 monitoring sitesThe district has identified three Bay Area sites with high population and traffic counts and will set up monitors within 165 feet of them by Jan. 1. To passersby, the monitors will look like trailers, but inside will be equipment for measuring the pollution.
One monitor will be located near Interstate 80, west of Aquatic Park in Berkeley - the most congested stretch of freeway in the Bay Area, regulators say. Another will be in San Jose, south of the intersection of Interstates 280 and 680 and Highway 101. And the Oakland monitor will be on the east side of Interstate 880, on the Laney College campus.
Regulators will keep tabs on at least three types of pollutants: nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and fine particulates. Collectively, these are known to exacerbate asthma and heart disease and irritate the lungs.
Other pollutants that regulators also intend to track include compounds found in gasoline, and ultrafine particulates, which can penetrate deep into the lungs.
"Once we have that information, we can better attack those emissions," Stevenson said. If, for example, nitrogen dioxide turns out to be the primary cause of increased asthma rates near freeways, regulators could seek to further clean up car emissions in ways that would reduce nitrogen dioxide.
The monitors are still under construction and will cost a total of about $650,000 to $800,000 to develop, which includes the first year's operating cost, Stevenson said. The money will come from the district's general fund and grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, said she supports the program.
The data coul
d be especially important, she noted, as urban planners start to develop new communities near transit hubs as required by state law. Some Bay Area land that is targeted for residential development is located near freeways, posing severe air-quality-related health risks for future occupants.
Higher cancer, asthma riskWest Oakland residents such as Gordon breathe air with three times more diesel particles than Bay Area residents in general, and as a result have an increased risk of cancer and asthma, according to 2008 studies by Alameda County's Public Health Department and the state Air Resources Board.
Other research reflects this risk on a larger scale. A UC Berkeley study released this month of more than 73,000 California residents linked chronic air-pollution exposure to death from heart disease.
And a study released in June of more than 4,000 Latino and African American youths in the Bay Area, Chicago, New York City, Houston and Puerto Rico showed a strong link between nitrogen dioxide in infancy and asthma later in childhood.
Dr. John Balmes, the latter study's co-author, said the monitors will provide an unusually up-to-date and comprehensive look at traffic emissions. The real-time data will be posted on the air district's website.
Data to study intervention"If you want to get a handle on controlling traffic emissions and seeing the effect of interventions to control traffic emissions, you need to be monitoring on a regular basis," said Balmes, a professor of medicine at UCSF and an environmental health sciences professor at UC Berkeley. He was also part of a scientific review panel that helped draft the federal law requiring the program.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's rules will be phased in over three years, giving smaller communities more time to comply. Elsewhere in California, monitors will be set up in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego and Sacramento.