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by Viji Sundaram

New Health Hazards Linked To Highways (2002)

(PNS) -- When Jannat Muhammad's 7-year-old grandniece developed asthma back in 2000, Muhammad was pained but not surprized. After all, many of the child's schoolmates at Verde Elementary in North Richmond were succumbing to the disease with numbing regulatory.

"There's a tremendous amount of asthma among children in Verde," said Muhammad, who works with the Costa Contra County Health Services' West County Asthma Coalition.

A study released today indicates that children living along truck routes in California have high rates of asthma and low lung capacity. Verde Elementary is in the proximity of the Chevron oil refineries, long blamed for some of the health woes of West Contra Costa County's residents, and a thoroughfare for trucks between Highway 80 and the Richmond Parkway.

Asthma, the most common chronic disease among children in the United States, causes wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Airborne particles such as dust, soot and smoke less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are small enough to lodge themselves deep in the lungs, causing a host of respiratory problems and even nonfatal heart attacks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A significant portion of these fine particles are produced by diesel engine emissions.

The landscape of West Contra Costa County and the Alameda county communities of West San Leandro and West Oakland is dotted with waste-transfer stations, ports, rail yards and departmental stores that provide good business to the trucking industry. The Port of Oakland, for instance, boasts more than 10,000 truck trips a day, according to Bill Aboudi, operations manager of AB Trucking, whose fleet of trucks hauls goods out of the port. Aboudi says that because of "limited space" at the port terminals, "there is always a long line of trucks inching along," generating diesel emissions.

It's not just children who are affected by the emissions. "So many truckers have asthma," Aboudi says.

Studies have shown that there is a strong link between diesel pollution and respiratory problems, says Swati Prakash, program director with the Pacific Institute. An Oakland-based nonprofit. "There is also no question that diesel pollution causes cancer. In fact, the state estimates that 70 percent of cancer risk from air pollution is from diesel."

In West Contra Costa County, where racial and ethnic minorities make up more than 35 percent of the population, diesel pollution is 40 times higher per square mile than in the rest of California, according to Meena Palaniappan, Pacific Institute's senior research associate.

"Children in West Oakland are seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than children living the rest of California," says Palaniappan, whose nonprofit collaborated with more than a dozen environmental justice and health organizations in conducting the year-long study, titled "Paying With Our Health: The Real Cost of Freight Transport in California." And children living in North Richmond, home to largely low-income African-American and Latino residents, are visiting emergency rooms three times more frequently than those living in the town of Lafayette, a few miles to the southeast.

For years, neighborhood groups from these San Francisco Bay Area cities have been protesting the unchecked pollution caused by freight transport running through their cities, which is estimated to cost California residents $200 billion over the next 15 years in health costs, most of which is borne by low-income communities of color living near freight transport hubs.

"Diesel is the number one air polluter in California," notes Palaniappan. "Poor communities are subsidizing cheap goods for the rest of California with their health."

At least 80 percent of tax revenues in San Leandro is generated from businesses in the western part of the city, says Wafaa Aborashed, executive director of the Healthy San Leandro Collaborative and a West San Leandro resident. "People are sacrificed here, but the city is in denial about it."

Those outside these neighborhoods are also picking up the tab. According to the California Air Resources Board, freight transport each year causes around 2,400 people to die prematurely; 2,380 people to be admitted to the hospital; 360,000 missed workdays and 1,100,000 missed days of school, the study reports.

Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Safeway and the neighborhood grocery store are among scores of companies that transport their freight using big rig trucks that spew out toxic particulates from burnt diesel fuel.

"These companies make a lot of money, while I spend money on medicine and miss work, and my daughter misses school," complains Oti Nungaray, who has been living close to the Long Beach port in Southern California for the last 10 years, the nation's largest port complex.

"Because we are a community of color and low-income, everyone wants to dump on us," asserted Lee Jones, a community advocate who lives in North Richmond after he retired from the University of California in San Francisco in 1998 because "this was the only affordable place for me."

In 1998, the Golden Gate Environmental Law and Justice Clinic took the Port of Oakland to court on behalf of West Oakland residents. Palaniappan says that a good chunk of the $9 million settlement the port set aside for air quality improvement has still not been used.

"It's just been a constant, constant fight," she says.

Port of Oakland officials assert that their emission reduction project is a "multi-year program."

"The Port of Oakland is in the early development stages of an air quality regional master plan," contends Marilyn Sandifur, the port's media and public relations specialist. "We're trying to pool our resources with other public agencies," she says, in order to have a bigger impact.

Environmental justice advocates hope that the data from the new study will give them enough ammunition to demand statewide legislation requiring polluters to mitigate their toxic effects by such measures as imposing container fees that can be used for environmental cleanup and community health programs.

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Albion Monitor   November 14, 2006   (

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