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From Ships to Ports to Warehouses: The Health Effects of Moving All These Things

From Ships to Ports to Warehouses: The Health Effects of Moving All These Things

Picture of Kari Lydersen

Early in my reporting career I did a number of stories on the coal-burning power plants, a smelter and other point sources of air pollution in and around Pilsen, the largely low-income, immigrant neighborhood in Chicago where I live.

It was highly disturbing to learn about the health effects of the particulate pollution and other emissions from these sources, in terms of the environmental justice impact on my neighbors – many extended families with young kids and elders in poor health, lacking insurance.

And as an athlete with asthma I was personally concerned, frustrated that running and biking in my own neighborhood, taking deep breaths of that polluted air, might be doing me more harm than good. I watched thick layers of black soot accumulate on my windowsills, knick knacks and every surface. A 60-year-old stuffed koala from my grandfather that had always been white turned dark gray in a matter of months.

Community groups, public health advocates and Chicago politicians have for more than a decade been fighting to clean up the aforementioned coal burning plants and some other notorious sources of air pollution in Chicago. But it was only in the past several years that I realized a probably much greater source of air pollution in my neighborhood particularly and the city as a whole was rarely talked about. This would be the diesel emissions from trucks, trains, tugboats and other machinery that ply the roads, rails and waterways that undergird Chicago.

As I became familiar with the clean ports movement on the east and west coasts and the advocacy and governmental action around rail yards and ports in California, I realized that this was a highly significant environmental health and environmental justice issue right in my backyard. And a hard one for residents and local policymakers to address, since difficult as it is to pressure an individual polluter to comply with or surpass environmental regulations, it's much harder to address non-point source national industries with little accountability to local regulators.

The more I became interested in and reported upon the air pollution effects of goods movement and logistics industries, the more I indulged a growing fascination with and admiration for the pragmatic specifics of moving huge quantities of things around the world – the coal, grain, iron ore, steel and other commodities that built Chicago and the heartland, and more recently the containers that carry almost every man-made thing we come in contact with in our daily lives.

Watching trains run behind my apartment and barges on the canals nearby gazing at huge container ships docking in San Diego, Seattle and Anchorage oil tankers on the Hudson, the Mississippi and the Detroit River "salties" dramatically entering Duluth Harbor's narrow mouth from far-flung parts of the world and less romantically the trucks rumbling and spewing through my neighborhood at all hours I'm entranced by the non-stop efforts to move an endless stream of objects from one spot to another – and the effects these efforts have on our communities.

I'm very interested in the health effects of goods movement and the logistics industry in part because approaching complicated issues like race, economics, labor and immigration through the lens of health is one way to make tangible an intricate intersecting group of social factors; to see (even though cause and effect  in any given case are usually impossible to prove) how a person's surroundings, history and social status impact their physical and mental well-being.

At least since the famous "Teamsters and Turtles" alliance at the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, there has been a strong and growing awareness among activists, policymakers and the general public that advocates for jobs and environmental protection should not be pitted against each other, as often happens in any given debate over a new factory, a mine or an environmental regulation.

One of the intriguing aspects of the clean ports movements and a burgeoning movement around the warehouse complexes in the Chicago area is the strategy of pushing for improvements in environmental impact (especially air quality) and working conditions at the same time.

Goods movement encompasses a wide spectrum of types of jobs, fairly stratified along race and class lines, with perhaps the base of the movement formed by very low paid, largely immigrant workers in warehouses unloading containers and transferring products. From these workers breathing in harmful dust from containers and suffering acute and chronic injuries on a regular basis to better-paid railroad workers subject to increasing automation which they say compromises safety, there are significant, under-appreciated and under-compensated health impacts for workers throughout the supply chain. And especially the lower-paid workers in warehouse complexes and ports are likely to live near the facilities where they work, meaning they are subject to the health impacts of the industry both on the job and just breathing the air at home.

Even with the economic crisis, the movement of goods by truck, ship and especially rail is expected to increase in coming years. Critiques of excessive consumerism and globalization aside, few would argue we could or even should curb this industry's scope and existence. But technological innovations mean decreasing the public health impact of goods movement is increasingly possible, and improving the occupational health experience of workers in ports, warehouses and all the related job sites is not a matter of feasibility but of will on the part of largely multinational employers who will usually only make concessions for worker well-being when they are forced or persuaded to by public pressure, regulation or collective bargaining.

There are many faces – literally and figuratively – to the community and occupational health effects of goods movement. I am excited and honored to be exploring some of them with the support of the Hunt Fund.

 

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