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.

Air quality, particularly smog, has substantially improved in the Los Angeles region after decades of regulations cleaning up cars, trucks, industries and consumer products. In recent years, emissions have declined around the two ports as new technologies have been put in place by port officials, including a clean-truck program that has replaced many old diesel trucks with newer models equipped with particle filters.

Yet severe levels of pollution remain. Hot spots for cancer-causing traffic pollutants have been found throughout the harbor area, particularly along Interstate 710, which stretches from Long Beach to Alhambra east of Los Angeles. Ozone, the main ingredient of smog, is still the worst in the country in the Los Angeles basin. Fine particles are among the worst, too.

“The presence of industrial facilities in or near residential areas is the sad truth here in Southern California,” said Chris Cannon, director of environmental management at the Port of Los Angeles.

The latest controversy in the region centers on whether to build a 153-acre railyard across the street from the playground of the Hudson K-8 School, which was built in 1967. Burlington Northern Santa Fe has proposed the project on the port-owned land, currently used for warehousing and transfer of cargo, to move goods in and out of the ports more efficiently.

The railyard proposal would bring more truck traffic to the west Long Beach neighborhood, but it is designed to reduce the volume of trucks traveling along the 24 miles of freeway from the ports to the railroad’s yard in East Los Angeles. A draft environmental impact report was released last month. Cargo containers from the port would be unloaded from trucks and put onto trains at the proposed railyard, bringing an estimated 1.5 million more truck trips to the Hudson School neighborhood yearly. The railroad has said it would use alternative-fuel locomotives and electric-powered cranes and other equipment, and would allow only low-emission trucks. But community activists are worried about increased emissions and health threats.

Suzanne Arnold, Hudson’s former nurse – she was laid off last year as the schools faced severe budget cuts – told Birnbaum that about 250 out of the 1,100 students have asthma. Air quality officials gave the school monitors to test the air, and filters to put in classrooms.

Arnold said the children stay inside when teachers do a “sniff” test and smell exhaust or chemicals in the air.

Birnbaum frowned. “There can be lots of emissions you never smell,” she warned. Included are volatile organic compounds like trichloroethylene and benzene that are known carcinogens.

But when Hudson’s principal, Cathleen Imbroane, told her that the children and teachers are healthier since air filters were put in classrooms, Birnbaum perked up at the promising news. The principal said everyone comments on how they breathe easier at school – although they return home and revert back to the same poor air. Birnbaum saw it as a potential way to improve health, and suggested that it would be valuable for scientists to compare children’s pulmonary health with and without the filters.

The principal took Birnbaum out to the school playground. “Welcome to the Terminal Island parking lot,” Imbroane said. The line of trucks idling on the Terminal Island Freeway next to the playground was worse than usual that day, she said. Fumes wafted up, and Birnbaum and the others felt their lungs take in the exhaust.

From her office in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, Birnbaum is well-aware of the health effects of traffic exhaust after reviewing scientific evidence. But she visits communities such as this several times a year to see how real people are struggling.

“I need to see this,” Birnbaum said. “It helps me understand the impacts. There really is a lack of understanding how pollution is local. A lot of these issues are right in our back yards.”

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.

“Once you’ve been poisoned, you never get over it,” Podue said. But, he added, “you can’t chase away the work.” A crane operator, he said he would love to see all the port equipment “plugged in and green.”

“We all have a story to tell,” he told Birnbaum and the other officials. “Just don’t forget the workers when you’re doing it.”

Birnbaum said the debate has to move beyond jobs versus health. It’s obvious, she said, that the ports and freeways are economically necessary but they have to be designed and equipped to protect the community’s health. Rather than just calculating the cost of cleaner technologies, she said, communities should calculate the cost savings from avoiding illnesses.

 “You’ve got to put a dollar figure on how much money you’d save by not having kids with asthma and people with heart attacks,” she said. “You have to turn it around and say how much money is saved by doing it the right way.”

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.