By Karen Robes Meeks, November 3, 2013
Emmanuel Iglesias, 5, undergoes a treatment for his asthma at the Children's Clinic in Long Beach. Family lives in Wilmington.
LONG BEACH >> When Emmanuel Ibarra can’t breathe, the asthmatic kindergartner often seeks relief at The Children’s Clinic on Atlantic Avenue.
On a recent visit, the boy wheezed and coughed as a doctor listened to his chest and back. To loosen the mucus that filled his underdeveloped lungs, Ibarra’s cousin Jennifer Castellon tapped his back while he breathed in and out of a machine that doled out medication in mist form.
Castellon and Ibarra’s brother Christian Iglesias, both of whom have asthma, said living near refineries and the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles has aggravated their condition.
“The area doesn’t really help because of all the pollution and stuff,” Castellon said.
“When there’s smoke in the area, we don’t let him go outside,” Iglesias said. “We tell him, ‘You can’t go outside because it’s bad for your asthma.’ ”
Ibarra is among the 35,000 low-income children and adults treated annually by The Children’s Clinic, a Long Beach-based nonprofit founded by doctors and community members.
The clinic is among a handful of nonprofit organizations and coalitions such as the Long Beach Alliance For Children With Asthma and EndOil/Communities for Clean Ports working to fight the impacts of air pollution and improving the quality of life of those who live in proximity to the ports and the transportation system that supports them.
“We’ve created this little army of advocates, and it’s been very cool,” said Dr. Eliza Nicholas, CEO of The Children’s Clinic and project director of Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma. “I like to say that LBACA moms helped move the freeway because (officials) were looking at moving homes to expand the 710 Freeway.”
A pediatrician who has traveled to Africa and Haiti for public health work, Nicholas has been a longtime advocate for children suffering from asthma. She helped establish the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma, a community coalition under the umbrella of Miller Children’s Hospital, also a nonprofit. The alliance, founded in 1999, was one of seven programs in the nation funded under the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation’s Allies Against Asthma and one of 12 statewide programs funded under the California Endowment’s Community Action to Fight Asthma.
“In the year that we started LBACA, there was a death in the playground of a 5-year-old with asthma, and it shouldn’t happen because asthma is treatable,” Nicholas said.
Officials at the clinic began changing their focus as they received more asthma cases, and started designing programs and education materials. Everyone at the clinic was trained in treating childhood asthma, even those working in finance, Nicholas said.
Gisele Fong, executive director of End Oil/Communities for Clean Ports, became involved with the Long Beach-based nonprofit in 2007 after she became a mom.
“I started having kids and learning about the air quality in Long Beach, and I wanted to learn more about the environment and work upstream to effect change,” said Fong, a Bixby Knolls resident.
The group works in partnership with others to rally for alternative energy sources and reducing port pollution. Their latest campaign is protesting the Southern California International Gateway project, a 153-acre facility planned by BNSF Railway in an industrial area near the Terminal Island Freeway.
Opponents say the $500-million project, which would allow trucks to load containers and put them on trains closer to the ports, will adversely affect Carson, Long Beach and Wilmington residents.
“It’s an environmental injustice that these communities bear the brunt of these projects,” Fong said.
Those communities are often low-income families, Nicholas said. “It’s an equity issue, so it’s really important for us that we try to make sure we clean up the emissions as much as possible and that they’re putting in more monitoring systems.”
Air pollution is a side effect of handling much of the country’s cargo in the Long Beach/Los Angeles harbor area, home to the nation’s two busiest seaports.
Pollutants such as burning fuel, gases and particulate matter from truck and ship emissions cause increased respiratory illness, worsen asthma, affect lung function and can cause cancer and premature death, according to LBACA.
“Clearing up the air is imperative,” Nicholas said.
It’s something port officials such as Heather Tomley, acting director of Environmental Planning for the Port of Long Beach, are trying to do.
“The concerns that were being shared by the local community were that the growth in cargo was moving really rapidly and not enough was being done to address the impacts associated with growth and trade,” Tomley said.
That outcry prompted both ports to be more environmentally friendly, including the adoption of the Clean Air Action Plan, the implementation of the Clean Trucks Program and the development of a grant program that would fund air filtration systems for schools, mobile care clinics and other community projects.
Nonprofits and other organizations such as The Children’s Clinic have used these funds to further their work.
The greener approach appears to have a dent in fixing the problem. In August, the ports’ annual emissions inventory — a report that measures air pollution generated by ships, trucks, railroads and other port-related operations — showed declining pollution numbers.
The Long Beach port saw pollutants such as sulfur oxides plummet by 88 percent, diesel particulate matter fall by 81 percent, nitrogen oxides drop by 54 percent when compared with 2005, the baseline for measurement established by the San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Plan.
Los Angeles set records with its numbers, showing “an unprecedented 79 percent drop in diesel particulate matter,” while nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides fell 56 percent and 88 percent respectively since 2005, according to the Port of Los Angeles.
Nicholas said things seem to be getting better but that more needs to be done.
“It’s a true shift at the port,” she said. “But it took a lot of people raising the issue and some lawsuits to get us there.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s more to go,” she said. “I think the public awareness is much higher, but we’ve got to keep raising the awareness and start changing policy.”