Growing up in America's Worst Air
Children in suburban Riverside and San Bernardino counties breathe what is arguably the worst air in America. Diesel soot and other harmful particles and lung-searing ozone build up in the region, not only from local sources but from polluters in coastal areas. Sea breezes push the toxic brew toward the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, where it cooks in the near-constant sunshine. Some areas are affected by proximity to freeways, rail yards, distribution centers and factories.
Hundreds of studies have detailed how children who live in the most polluted areas are affected – they miss more school days and are more likely to develop asthma and have stunted lung development. Adults suffer, too – they more likely to have heart disease, heart attacks and stroke, and they have a greater chance of dying early.
Making the situation worse is the increasing volume of cargo arriving from Asia at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Inland counties at the edge of Southern California’s sprawl have seen huge growth in warehouses, expanded rail yards and increased truck traffic as the goods move to destinations all over the country.
Warehouse developers and their allies in local government herald their distribution centers because they bring jobs. But they also attract an increasing number diesel trucks and locomotives. Diesel soot is the most toxic component of fine-particle air pollution.
I will use the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health Journalism grant to scrutinize the scientific literature and interview the researchers to explain what this pollution does to our bodies, with a focus on the particular vulnerabilities faced by children.
I also will examine the economic toll, from increased health care costs to the lost productively from missed work and school days.
Further, I plan to explore the gulf between the scientists’ findings and the government’s strategies to protect health. For example, soot has been found to be far more toxic than other forms of particle pollution, such a dust kicked up from dirt roads. But federal health standards, which set the bar for regional cleanup efforts, treat soot and dust the same. This has allowed local officials to focus on dust reduction, while encouraging more warehouse development in areas already plagued with pollution. Also, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency repeatedly has extended the deadlines to achieve clean air.
On a personal note, my daughter, 18, and myself, 53, recently jogged together. Neither of us had been running for some time. After about a mile, she was too short of breath to continue. But I still had plenty of wind. She had grown up in nation’s worst air, which stunts lung development. I had not.