By Felix Aguilar, MD, and Don Anair, February 19, 2015
This is part of a series examining the 710 Corridor and its impact in the surrounding communities, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.
While planners are seeking community engagement throughout the planning process, community organizations are also taking it upon themselves to ensure that their voices are heard. Below, we hear from a health professional and an engineer with real concerns about the health impact of the I-710 Corridor:
A 12-year-old boy named Jimmy came to see me at a community clinic in southeast Los Angeles after falling at school. While taking his health history, I discovered that he was diagnosed with asthma at age 5. His mother mentioned that Jimmy is unable to play a full game of soccer because of his asthma; and when I listened to his lungs, I noticed poor air movement. Jimmy told me that he suffers frequent asthma attacks, which sometimes causes him to miss school. However, neither Jimmy nor his mother seemed very surprised about the school absences or his inability to be fully active.
That's because asthma has become a regular part of life for many in the disadvantaged communities where I practice medicine. According to the Department of Public Health, one in 11 children in Los Angeles County have asthma. African-American children have the highest rates of asthma (25 percent) compared to Hispanic children (8 percent) and non-Hispanic white children (7 percent).
Jimmy lives close to the 710 Freeway, a major transportation corridor for moving goods from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. Air pollution from this freeway is a major contributor to asthma in Southeast Los Angeles; and children are most vulnerable. When Jimmy plays soccer on a field near the freeway, he is forced to inhale the exhaust fumes from the trucks rolling by.
Currently, Californians depend on trucks, trains and ships powered primarily by diesel fuel to deliver our food and merchandise. But the freight sector is California's largest single source of ozone-causing nitrogen oxide emissions and diesel particulate pollution. Movement of freight is also a major contributor to climate change, including emissions of carbon dioxide and black carbon.
Low-income communities experience the health impacts of industrial freight activity the most by being forced to breathe diesel exhaust on a daily basis in their own neighborhoods adjacent to highways, ports and rail yards.
As a physician, I look at the prevalence of a disease and seek ways to prevent it. That's why I believe medical professionals need to work closely with scientists and policymakers to battle pollution. Solutions exist to overhaul today's conventional freight vehicles into a low-carbon transportation system that cleans our air, improves our public health and helps us meet our climate goals.
According to a report released last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists and others, cleaner freight alternatives would reduce emissions well beyond today's cleanest diesel and natural gas trucks. More efficient engines, advanced emission controls and cleaner fuels can make conventionally powered trucks, trains and ships less polluting. Powering short-haul trucks with clean electricity would benefit regional air quality by dramatically reducing tailpipe emissions in communities most affected by truck traffic. For regional trips, moving goods by train and ship using the cleanest engine technologies would reduce emissions compared to today's cleanest diesel trucks, though any move toward greater rail or ship use must ensure the health of communities surrounding rail yards and ports.
Existing state policies -- particularly for freight transportation -- are insufficient to meet upcoming federal air-quality deadlines. An analysis by state and regional air-quality officials shows that we need about a 90 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions in some parts of the state -- including Los Angeles--to reach air-quality standards over the next two decades.
We urge Gov. Brown, the California Air Resources Board, and other state agencies to take all necessary action to transition to a more efficient freight system, one that relies on the cleanest alternatives. Given the scope of the challenge, a broad approach is needed to tackling freight pollution, including new regulations, expanded incentive programs, and a commitment to ensuring that new transportation projects cut pollution -- not increase it. For example, planned upgrades to the 710 Freeway could include a mandatory zero-emission freight corridor for heavy-duty trucks.
Transforming our freight system will provide cleaner air, a safer climate, and improved health for all of its communities. When that happens, Jimmy and the rest of us will breathe easier.