Skip to main content.

San Pedro High School student investigates neighborhood air pollution spewing from nearby refineries and freeways

Fellowship Story Showcase

San Pedro High School student investigates neighborhood air pollution spewing from nearby refineries and freeways

Picture of Sandy Mazza
With the ConocoPhillps refinery behind him, Nick Serrano stands in the Wilmington Waterfront Park in Wilmington on Friday, Aug.
(Photo by Scott Varley, Daily Breeze/SCNG)
Daily Breeze
Tuesday, August 7, 2018

For this series, Southern California News Group analyzed air-pollution data collected by South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Port of Los Angeles in Wilmington, San Pedro and Long Beach. The project focused on fine particulates, which include diesel emissions, released from 2010 to 2017.

The data comprised hourly readings from five sites around the region, was received in response to public records requests.

SCNG also installed portable PurpleAir monitors ( in three homes in Wilmington and San Pedro to provide additional data on particulates. The monitors record particulate levels every minute. This was done to cross-check the official data and to quantify exposure to pollution for individuals interviewed for the project. The devices were installed from mid-February to mid-March.

SCNG undertook this project in partnership with USC’s Center for Health Journalism, which supplied training, support and funding to purchase air pollution monitors. SCNG was solely responsible for the editorial content of the series.

Nick Serrano, a San Pedro High School senior, learned that his family’s Sunday afternoon barbecues create toxic pollution spikes outside his home based on data from a PurpleAir monitor installed there by Southern California News Group.

But he’s more concerned about harder-to-avoid threats from three oil refineries and two freeways within four miles of his home. The Port of Los Angeles’ sprawling industrial complex is blocks from his home. It can also can be seen from classroom windows at his school.

Serrano studied air pollution this past semester in his AP Environmental Science class. He documented refinery flares, fumes from cargo ships and massive oil storage tanks in his neighborhood.

“This brings a message (of) how close we all are to chemicals that harm our bodies,” Serrano said. “San Pedro, Wilmington and Long Beach suffer the most due to not only being near the port where ships and tons of machines spread the pollution, but also the number of refineries there are in the area.”

Serrano and his family hosted the monitor to learn more about his exposure to health-destroying particulate matter, or PM2.5, an insidious form of air pollution that is small enough to seep through the lungs and into the bloodstream.

The average level of PM2.5 at his home, near Hawaiian Avenue Elementary School, was 8 micrograms per cubic meter of air from mid-February to mid-March.

A Purple Air monitor at the Serrano family home shows PM2.5 spikes at the location in February and March. A flaring event at Phillips 66 refinery near the home took place when the highest spikes were recorded in mid-March. (Graphic by Ian Wheeler, SCNG)

But the nearest Port of Los Angeles air-quality monitor, about 2 miles from him, recorded higher levels of fine particulates, according to an analysis of its data. On average, 13 micrograms of smog spewed from that monitor each year from 2010 to 2017.

Federal health officials say consistently breathing in more than 12 micrograms is hazardous. High levels of PM2.5 can cause heart and respiratory diseases and cancers. As a region, Southern California exceeds that threshold.

Scientists are investigating links between PM2.5 and a wide range of conditions. Their findings increasingly show there are no safe levels of air pollution.

“There is sufficient evidence to say (PM2.5) exposure causes lung cancer and premature death from heart disease,” said Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Frasier University who studies environmental causes of disease for federal health agencies. “Then, there are others where there’s limited but compelling evidence – things like autism, obesity, cognitive deficits and dementia.”

Neighborhood impacts

Serrano didn’t have to look far to find health impacts from surrounding industry.

He interviewed his friend and neighbor, Jose Rodriguez, who developed asthma a year after moving to Wilmington from Santa Barbara in 2012.

“I was running in P.E. class and suddenly I couldn’t breathe so good,” Rodriguez said. “I just kinda froze and fell. After that incident, my mother took me to the doctor and he told me I had developed asthma.”

The PurpleAir monitor outside Serrano’s home logged 524 large, harmful spikes of pollution lasting for 1 to 20 minutes at a time, during the analysis. Some of those coincided with Serrano family barbecues.

A Purple Air monitor at the Serrano family home shows PM2.5 spikes at the location in February and March. A flaring event at Phillips 66 refinery near the home took place when the highest spikes were recorded in mid-March.

Many of the longest, most damaging surges in pollution coincided with a planned mid-March heavy release of toxic chemicals at Phillips 66 refinery, about a mile west of the house.

Refineries don’t specify the exact times of these flaring events, making it difficult to connect large pollution releases with documented spikes. Instead, they provide residents a range of dates during which the emissions surges will take place.

What’s more, Los Angeles’ eight refineries underreport their toxic releases into nearby communities, according to a 2016 study by Chalmers University of Technology in partnership with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The lack of transparency prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to require fence-line air-monitoring systems by 2020 at all refineries.

The state recently approved more than $1 billion for increased air monitoring and incentives for clean-energy vehicles in the most polluted areas, with assembly bills 134 and 617. Air-quality regulators are working to use the money to more quickly reduce excessive levels of PM2.5 and ozone, especially in low-income communities of color like Serrano’s.


Meanwhile the Coalition for Clean Air already deployed hundreds of PurpleAir monitors across the state to document pollution on a more local level. The network broadcasts real-time air-quality readings on the organization’s website.

These machines are documenting toxic pollution surges during rush hours and when oil refineries flare plumes of gray and black toxic smoke.

Coalition for Clean Air President Joe Lyou said the C.L.E.A.R. network helps people with asthma avoid bad air, preventing attacks.

“This provides an opportunity for people to educate themselves about what the devices tell us and what they don’t,” Lyou said. “We certainly know that when we see numbers spiking from forest fires that people should take precautionary measures to avoid breathing the polluted air.”

PurpleAir monitors use new advanced electronics that rely on laser beams to count passing particles “like dust shimmering in a sunbeam,” according to a statement from the four-year-old startup company. In comparison, EPA monitors weigh pollution captured in their filters.

USC’s Environmental Health Center is also taking advantage of the new low-cost monitors.

The center trains Los Angeles teens living in high-pollution areas how to use $250 AirBeam portable monitors to better track their health impacts. Students reported nosebleeds, stomach cramps, headaches, heart palpitations and extremely troubled breathing associated with the industrial sites around them in journals kept during their monitoring.

Air-quality regulators believe the haze on the Los Angeles horizon will clear up as new low- and zero-emissions diesel-engine technologies take over in the next 15 years. But their adoption by commercial companies working in the region will depend on their affordability.

Air filters can help too and San Pedro High School is one of many Los Angeles Unified School District sites to find some benefit with air filters.

Serrano’s teacher, Jennifer Cheng, said her asthma attacks stopped shortly after the filters were installed at the school.

Now, she works to teach students that they have the power to change their surroundings.

“When I became a grandmother, I realized I wanted to leave the Earth a little better than it is because my generation actually messed up the Earth,” Cheng said. “The whole idea of saving the world starts in my backyard.”

For Serrano’s friend, Jose Rodriguez, pollution brings daily challenges.

“I can’t push myself too hard at running or sports. Everything (takes) me more effort,” Rodriguez said. “It really bothers me to this day. Also, the fact that I can’t go anywhere without my inhaler is a big reminder and I don’t like it.”

[This article was originally published by The Daily Breeze.]