One recent visit was to the Rubbertown neighborhood of Louisville, home to many chemical plants and a rubber factory.
Every area, she said, has unique problems. In Los Angeles, air quality, particularly from traffic, is one of the worst, but other areas have different problems – coal-fired power plants, chemical factories, contaminated water, hazardous waste.
“It really does help me to see these things,” she said, as she walked in the Hudson school yard over to the wire fence to watch the diesel trucks snaking by. “It’s one thing to read about it and another to see it.”
That night, at a community forum in Paramount, Birnbaum told residents that she wasn’t fooled by the “absolutely glorious” skies she saw in Los Angeles, the day after an unusual early- October rain. She told them that seeing their communities “really struck home how important our efforts are.”
Her federal institute pays for research at the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center, a collaboration begun in 1996 between USC and University of California scientists to research issues mostly related to air pollutants.
She told the audience of about 70 residents that NIEHS-funded research in the harbor area has reported links between air quality and asthma, smaller babies, cardiovascular disease, lung function and even death. Researchers also are examining whether early-life exposures are triggering diseases and other health effects later in life, since babies and fetuses “have enhanced susceptibility,” she said.
During their 15-minute bus trip up the 710 freeway from Long Beach to East Los Angeles, one USC professor counted 550 trucks in just one direction. The freeway is the main route for trucks to and from the ports. Studies have shown these communities have a higher cancer risk from airborne toxics.
About half of the residents of Los Angeles County – about 7 million people – live within a mile of a freeway, “some within 100 meters or less, and that’s dramatically close,” said Dr. Ed Avol, a USC professor of preventive medicine.
Dr. Frank Gilliland, who directs the Southern California environmental Health Sciences Center, said lung function is about 10 percent lower in kids who grow up near the freeways, where there are high levels of ultra-fine particles. Also, children born to mothers living within 309 meters of a freeway appear to be twice as likely to have autism, according to research by assistant professor Heather Volk.
Ninety schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District are close to freeways and highly exposed to traffic fumes, said Angelo Bellamo, director of environmental health for Los Angeles County. A new district policy prohibits new schools within 500 feet of a freeway unless the district determines that there are no alternative sites, he said.
“But we still have to deal with the 90 that are too close,” he said. And in some cases, freeways and other facilities are moving closer to existing schools. “There’s a growing body of knowledge [about health effects] and the craziness is that we’re still doing this,” Bellamo said.
Henry Hogo, assistant deputy executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said his agency offers guidelines for choosing school sites, but there are no regulations since it has no authority over land use planning.
At the forum, Birnbaum heard from several moms, many of them speaking Spanish, who told her they are struggling to take care of children with asthma. They are afraid to let them play outdoors.
Near the end of the night, Tim Podue offered a story with a different twist. A longshoreman at the port, he has worked around diesel exhaust for 27 years. He has many co-workers with cancer, and he hates breathing the fumes. But he loves his job.