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Air pollution higher in poorer neighborhoods

Leading to respiratory illnesses

Isabell Rivera | OW Contributor | 7/1/2021, 8:01 a.m.
Although the air quality in Los Angeles has improved over the last 30 years...
Pollution

Although the air quality in Los Angeles has improved over the last 30 years—thanks to the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act—many Southern Californians still face higher air pollution and related health issues than other cities and states. Communities of color are especially impacted by the disproportionate amount of warehouse distribution centers, aviation, shipyards, freeways and factories around them.

During the coronavirus pandemic, some communities saw an increase of warehouse distribution centers around them and therefore many more diesel trucks driving through the area. Air pollution contains PM2.5, which means it’s an airborne “particulate matter” that measures up to 2.5 microns in size, according to IQ Air. The microscopic PM2.5 particles are so tiny, they can penetrate deep inside the lung tissues and blood flow and can cause a serious threat to human health. The other component of air pollution is ozone, which is a gas pollutant that is formed when nitrogen oxides and organic substances react with sunlight. These pollutants are usually found in vehicle exhaust and therefore considered a major factor regarding air pollution. Both ozone and PM2.5 are considered two of the worst pollutants to human health and are linked to respiratory illnesses such as asthma, premature death, inflammation, and heart disease.

Los Angeles is marked as the city—and county—with the worst ozone air pollution in the U.S., according to the 2019 State of the Air report.

According to a 2019 study called “Inequitable Exposure to Air Pollution from Vehicles in California,” by David Reichmuth, it has been mentioned that underrepresented groups are more exposed to air pollution caused by vehicle exhaust than White communities in Los Angeles. These demographics are exposed up to 43 percent higher PM2.5 pollution than the average White individual living in Southern California. However, vehicle exhaust is not the only source of air pollution but adds to the already existing dirty air due to dust, port emissions, and agricultural practices, which all contribute to health-related issues, however, diesel exhaust is by far the worst contributor.

Many families who live in San Bernardino have noticed the air quality got worse when diesel operating trucks would travel through the area, delivering cargo from- and to the warehouses that are used for distribution hubs - such as Amazon - since many more people ordered goods online during 2020.

The policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, Bill Magavern told Cal Health Report.org that this is not a surprise but important findings.

“This has been an environmental injustice that California has faced for decades,” he said. “Low-income communities of color are bearing a disproportionate burden from air pollution, and the air pollution-related to vehicle traffic is the source of most of the problem.”

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, San Bernardino had 130 bad days regarding air quality for ozone pollution in 2020. This violated the federal health standards almost every day in the summer of last year. Southern California air quality officials may vote on new regulations where warehouses can be held accountable for the first time regarding air pollution caused by diesel trucks operating for them. At a recent public hearing, the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s governing board had yet to decide whether or not to adopt those new rules and how strict they will be. If this request for the measure gets approved, it would severely impact the environment and the economy, since deliveries from store to door became a necessity during the 2020 pandemic.

Although this proposal has a wide range of support from environmentalists and certain community leaders, opponents, however, argue that adding regulations to the transport of goods will decrease job opportunities, and not have a major impact on cleaner air, as well as the fact these regulations will count to a tax and that it is out of the control of the legal authority of the air quality agent.

“That’s totally false,” Wayne Nastri, executive officer of the South Coast air district, told the LA Times. “We’re very confident that not only do we have the authority, but we’re going to be able to achieve emission reduction.”

This regulation would impact over 3,000 big warehouses, which will require them to cut back on deliveries via diesel trucks.

Warehouses have the option to choose from electric or natural gas-fueled trucks instead of diesel. Besides that, warehouses can also install rooftop solar panels, charging stations for electric vehicles, and installing air filters in schools and childcare centers close to the warehouses. Although, critics say the last option wouldn’t make much of a difference regarding reducing air pollution. This would mean that businesses who are targeted by this regulation can also choose to pay a mitigation fee, which can be used to invest in similar improvements of air quality nearby.

According to the air district, vehicles of all sorts contribute to more smog-related pollution than any other category, which makes up to 12 percent of nitrogen oxides leaked into the air of the South Coast Basin, which runs from Los Angeles alongside the I-10 highway through Riverside, San Bernardino, and Palm Springs. Over the next ten years, the air district estimates to decrease smog-forming nitrogen oxides emission from warehouses by 10 to 15 percent per day.

In addition, the air district also confirmed that more than 2.4 million people of color disproportionately live in poverty and within half a mile of at least one big warehouse distribution center. People in those areas reported having higher rates of asthma and heart disease, among other health-related issues.

However, the valley and the desert are not the only areas, with polluted air.

Cynthia Nunn, executive director of Sylvia Nunn Angel's, a Compton-based nonprofit, wrote a letter to the Our Weekly Editor, to raise awareness about air pollution also affecting South LA, such as Compton.

“In South Los Angeles, we understand the value and importance of health. Our struggle for health equity and cleaner breathing air is an uphill battle... I’m proud to see our nation’s leaders charting a path toward a more equitable future,” Nunn writes. “In my work, I see first-hand how health outcomes are often tied to point of origin, income level, and other external factors. As executive director of Sylvia Nunn Angel’s, an organization focused on lifting up South Los Angeles’ youth, I see every day the disproportionate impact of poor air quality on the communities we serve. Because most of our families live in high-traffic corridors, it is incumbent upon leaders here in California to take steps to reduce harmful carbon emissions and improve air quality.

“We need robust investment in alternative fuels and renewable sources of energy. We need greater access to public transportation, and our community deserves a seat at the table to help our leaders determine clear air policy and where funding is directed. We cannot afford to wait any longer; the stakes are too high. The youth of South L.A. deserve better. It’s up to us to leave behind a cleaner, healthier California for everyone.”