Pollution Forum Addresses the ‘Sad Truth’ of Living, Working In Los Angeles Area

Scientists say studies now show traffic pollution is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and autism.

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

Dockworker Tim Padue was unsure where he fit in at a recent community forum on traffic-related pollution.

The discussion was a mix of research results from scientists and personal stories from mothers concerned about the harmful health effects of living near freeways, railyards and the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.

The community forum was hosted by federal government officials from the National Institute for Environmental Health, NIEH, and scientists from the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center at USC; and attended by residents and community groups from all over Los Angeles, including Commerce and Boyle Heights.

There were not many who identified themselves as workers who are dependent on jobs in the goods movement industry and are also exposed to the pollution. As one of the last speakers at the Oct. 6 forum in Paramount, Padue said he was “kind of getting the feeling here that we’re trying to chase away some of the work” from the ports.

The 53-year old Padue could remember when it was easy to find a job at an “auto factory, making tires, building planes” but now “there is no longer industry in this country.”

He asked the scientists, public officials and community activists at the meeting to “not forget the workers,” while they were telling their stories.

His own story is very similar. “My uncle and my brother both have cancer. So we can all come up here, and we have a story to tell,” he said.

Padue gave community activists credit for getting officials to clean up the ports in recent years, saying his own dream would be to have the ports “plugged in and running green… it would be the best thing I’ve ever seen on the waterfront for me, especially being a crane operator.”

His motor skills were affected after he was “poisoned” from stack gas while working on a ship. “And once you get poisoned a little bit, you never get over it,” he said.

Many of his friends, family members and coworkers have fallen victim to asthma and cancer. “You should see our memorial board in our business offices… young people, young men, young women, it’s all across the board,” he said.

Dockworker Tim Padue, pictured, says memorials at work remind him of the consequences of pollution at their work sites, dreams of an entirely ‘plugged-in’ port. (EGP photo by Elizabeth Chou)

Port and other public health and environmental officials in charge of managing and reducing the health effects of trade and traffic-related pollution were also present at the community forum to answer questions.

According to USC researcher and activist Andrea Hricko, Padue’s own story actually plays an integral, though at times unspoken, role in the discussion that night.

“Many of the scientists in this room started out doing occupational health and are very interested in worker health and safety issues,” she told Padue, adding that “it’s actually those studies on workers that have let us know that the environmental exposures are of concern, so workers are on our minds and are partly responsible for our knowing that some of these chemicals and diesel exhaust are harmful.”

The scientists at the forum highlighted the urgency of studying the effects of traffic-related pollution especially with the expanding commercial trade industry being stimulated by the goods coming through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.

“A lot of the traffic here in Southern California, particularly off of the 710 freeway coming out of the ports to the railyards in Commerce and moving on east of Los Angeles have to do with accomodating the trade as we continue to grow and move goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach,“ said Ed Avol, Professor of Clinical Medicine at USC.

To prepare for the planned increase in trade, there are proposals to expand and extend freeways, as well as building double-decked freeways, he said.

Freeways and other busy roadways are a fact of life for many people in Southern California, with half of Los Angeles County, nearly 8 million people, living within a mile of a freeway, and a million within 100 meters, which is “dramatically close,” Avol said.

He added that almost a hundred LAUSD schools are located near freeways. Even though LAUSD has restricted itself from building more schools next to freeways, the proximity of schools and freeways seems to be a “recurring problem,” he said.

Frank D. Gilliland, Professor Preventive Medicine at USC said “emerging” studies show traffic pollution is linked not only to respiratory illnesses like asthma, but also to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and autism.

For Long Beach resident Eva Ramirez, this type of research seems to explain a lot about her life. She knew that her daughter may have gotten asthma from living near freeways, but she now thinks that her son may have gotten ADHD for the same reason.

“Do you know how stressful it is for a mom to be with these two kids? One sick every day, and the other one jumping and jumping and jumping. I was trying to go to classes on how to manage the stress, anger management, all those kinds of things to help myself…” she said.

There are many other moms “with the same problem…I think all of you guys can help them,” she told the panel of public officials.

To some public officials, the balance of the scientific studies gives a clear answer. “Living near major roads is bad for your health, period,” said NIEH Director Linda Birnbaum, while Los Angeles County Public Health Director Angelo Bellomo said it is time to take the emerging research on traffic pollution and “turn it into public policy.”

Officials who represent the environmental management divisions at the ports said they are making efforts to cut traffic pollution, but would add that trade in the region will create “relatively good paying” jobs, particularly in warehousing.

Executive Director of the East Yard for Environmental Justice Angelo Logan, who believes in creating a “green” economy that runs on planning and technology sensitive to community health, told Padue, that jobs and environmental health do not need to be pitted against each other.

Logan, whose Commerce and Long Beach-based organization has long fought to get railroad companies to comply with environmental regulations, and is now part of a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council arguing that the pollution from BNSF and Union Pacific railroad companies is the equivalent of dumping “solid waste” into the environment.

Los Angeles’ Deputy Mayor for the Environment Romel Pascual said he is “excited to see what comes out of” challenges to railroad companies. “We’re challenging a system that’s quite historic, the relationship of the railroad with the history of the U.S. and really how goods move, if we stop buying the stuff that we buy… we have to deal with it at that really fundamental level.”

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November 3, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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