LONG BEACH, Calif. – On a sunny afternoon, more than 1,000 children poured out of Hudson K-8 School, eager to play in their neighborhood. The flag football team was gearing up for practice, working out with their coach on the school’s grassy field.
Just beyond the playground fence, a line of diesel trucks was idling, stuck in traffic as they made their way from a massive port complex to a congested freeway. Trains rumble by, too. And there is a new proposal to turn a cargo warehousing area across the street into a large railyard that would bring even more trucks from the port.
It was a typical day at Hudson school in all but one way. They had a visitor – the top environmental health scientist in the country.
Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, visited Los Angeles and Long Beach on Thursday to witness firsthand how communities are struggling with health issues related to their environment. In this region alone, her institute spent $23 million over the past few years, mostly awarded to scientists investigating the connection between air pollution and an array of health effects.
Several times a year, Birnbaum visits communities – many of them in low-income, minority areas -- where these federal research dollars are spent to study environmental pollutants and human health. In the Los Angeles area, recent research, mostly conducted by University of Southern California scientists, has found connections between people living near freeways and asthma, reduced lung function, cardiovascular disease, autism and other health effects.
The area stretching from Long Beach to East Los Angeles is what environmental activists call the “diesel death zone.” Emissions from trucks, ships, trains and other diesel-powered sources envelope the region.
"Los Angeles has its share of health problems and we suspect many of them are environmentally related,” Birnbaum said.
From around the country, not just in Southern California, “evidence is showing that traffic pollution has a huge impact on public health,” she said. “Living near major roads is hazardous to your health. Period.”
In many ways, Birnbaum was on a toxic tour. Unlike most tourists, who see only Disneyland, the beaches and other scenic attractions, Birnbaum was there to see the underbelly of a region that faces some of the worst air quality problems in the country.
Accompanied by scientists from University of Southern California and UCLA who filled her in on their latest research, Birnbaum stopped first at an overlook where she could grasp the massive scope of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Combined, the side-by-side facilities are the sixth busiest container port in the world and the busiest in the United States.
“I’ve seen the port grow from being sort of an interesting place to an environmental nightmare,” said Dr. John G. Miller, an emergency room doctor and an environmental activist who has treated large numbers of harbor-area children suffering asthma attacks and adults suffering heart attacks.
A lifelong resident of Wilmington, located near the ports and several refineries, Jesse Marquez of the Coalition for a Safe Environment told Birnbaum that 40 years ago, the port complex was one-fifth its current size. He grew up smelling salt in the air, and now he more often smells diesel exhaust and refinery pollutants.
USC’s Andrea Hricko, a community outreach director who organized Birnbaum’s tour, said about 500 trucks an hour rumble down the Terminal Island Freeway past the Hudson school, and close to Cabrillo High School nearby. She said the carbon and ultra-fine particle levels are extremely high there due to the quadruple whammy of the ports, refineries, trains and freeways. Research has shown such particles can lodge in lungs, triggering asthma attacks, heart attacks and other respiratory and cardiovascular problems.