Part Two. Yesterday, in Part One, Critser discussed scientific advances in understanding air pollution. Today, he addresses the social implications.
The new science of air pollution, with its emphasis on dose-response mechanisms, may remake the traditional advocacy realm of social and environmental justice. In the past, that world has been focused on class, race and ethnicity, classic markers of inequality and vulnerability. Today, the focus is more “exposure driven.” “Dosage… may be something people who have ignored environmental justice can get their heads around,” one researcher at last month’s Environmental Epidemiology conference in Pasadena noted. “It may get people’s attention on something that affects us all.”
Other new observations are recasting ancient (and highly suspect) urban-suburban dichotomies as well. If one parses the science of small, regional temperature increases—the kind we may see more of in the future—and how those spikes “activate” ultrafine particles, one discovers a disturbing phenomenon: The combination of heat and UFPs makes airborne plant pollens more inflammatory. Such was the finding of Italian researchers studying how traffic emissions and high temperatures in Naples fortify the toxicity of urtica, the common allergen known as the nettle plant. One wonders how the same combination remakes the lovely sage and chaparral environment surrounding Southern California suburbs, even when the region isn’t burning. It is a disturbing prospect for those who believe they have escaped inflammation by exchanging big cities for exurban greenlands.
What, besides moving to Iceland, can be done? Few have thought more about that, at the practical level, than Andrea Hricko, an associate professor of clinical preventive medicine at USC, where she is trying to translate epidemiological data about pollution into practical public health policy. For years, Hricko’s focus was the Port of Los Angeles and the neighborhoods and schools surrounding that diesel-saturated realm. What she found were huge spikes in childhood chronic diseases, especially asthma, as well as other heart and lung problems. She and others succeeded in getting one school relocated—pushed back from the most truck-intensive route near the Alameda Corridor—but even that victory was a lesson in the unintended consequences of regulation.
“Come over here, you have to see this,” she said to a visitor one day in her crammed office on the medical school campus. On her computer appeared a picture of a group of kids playing soccer. In the immediate background loomed trucks belching the substances that eventually make the port air so heinously foggy. “See, this is where the school was. This was supposed to be the buffer zone, but… being that it is also rare, unoccupied space, and LA schools have so little recreational area, it is now a defacto playground. So you have kids better protected inside, but doing their deepest breathing part of their day right on top of the trucks.” It’s a perfect public health storm, she notes, because “getting kids outside and exercising more is a huge priority in the obesity-diabetes crisis.”
Hricko’s focus on the ports, arguably the octopus of contemporary industrial Los Angeles, has taught her some hard lessons. You can always get a regulation that says, for example, don’t build a school within X distance of a freeway, but you can rarely switch the scenario around, say, with a ruling that says don’t widen a freeway when it is within X distance of a school. The same is true of building a new rail yard, as is the case just north of the port today. For years, area residents waged war with the railroad and the port to simply locate the new yard closer to the water, which would have drastically reduced the number of short, emission-intensive trips by trucks, and thus hopefully cut down the high rate of respiratory disease in the area. The solution, instead, was to go ahead and build the yard right by the homes, with a promise by state regulatory agencies to install new, high efficiency filters in all area homes. While that protects the children while they’re inside—and, it would seem, suggests a possible boom enterprise for the filter industry—it’s far from an ideal solution. “They’re still spending most of their time outside, and we still need to get them to exercise more while they’re out there. It’s a frustrating exercise.”
Hricko has also wondered if the same impasse won’t obtain in the arena of the low-income housing juggernaut led by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. One recent hearing concerned an affordable housing complex proposed alongside the 5 freeway near East Los Angeles. As Hricko tells it, that project would be sandwiched between one of the most emissions-choked portions of the freeway and the mass transit Gold Line, which would run just behind it. “There was all kinds of talk about filtering, etcetera, but the real question was never brought to the fore: Perhaps this shouldn’t be considered for housing in the first place.” She notes that a member of the LA County Public Health staff made precisely this point… privately.
One can understand why. Affordable housing is an important, unmet need in Los Angeles, one with a substantial political establishment behind it and a charismatic mayor in front of it. There is, as a result, an understandable reluctance to get in the way of the parade, especially after years of political impasse. The mayor recently upped the ante and proclaimed a new $5 billion housing initiative, much of which would center on building new housing near mass transit stations. The essence of this transit pod strategy has a fairly sustainable logic: If you can get people to live near mass transit, you’ll dramatically reduce one of the biggest single factors in urban pollution: the numerous short, one-to-five mile trips that people make every day, whether to work or to the store or to pick up the kids at school. You’ll also reduce traffic jams.
The problem, of course, is human nature, and the naughty desire by poor people, especially in Los Angeles, to be like the rich people, driving whenever and to wherever they want. Compounding this, for the scheme to work, we still must get from the station to work and people will use a car to do that. “For Antonio’s plan to work, you’d basically have to make it a condition of ownership that you don’t have a car. Or, that if you are going to buy this housing, you have to work somewhere on the trainline,” Hricko said with a knowing smile. “Because if you don’t, you still have people driving. You’re defeating your purpose before you ever get started.”
That’s one realm where a leader like Villaraigosa, with his celebrity status and megawatt smile, could lead by example. But that hasn’t happened so far. Mike Woo, who describes himself as a supporter of the mayor, says “I want to say that I think the mayor’s people are on top of this. I wish I could say that. I really wish I could say that.” Woo notes that there is a slightly bigger time window for solving the housing crunch than is popularly acknowledged. The Planning Commission’s most recent staff report holds that meeting the need for housing in most transit corridors for the next 8-10 years does not require raising the density of housing.
That’s a rare breather, Woo says. Let’s make the most of it.
Greg Critser is the author of Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World (Houghton Mifflin 2003), Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs Are Altering American Lives, Minds, and Bodies (Houghton 2005), and Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging (Random/Harmony 2009).