Damning science raises new concerns about foul air

Published on
October 18, 2013

David Danelski, a reporter for The Press Enterprise in Riverside, California, reported on the health effects on children of air pollution in a reporting project,  “Air of Risk,”  produced in part with a grant from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health Journalism Fund, awarded by The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

Mexico City seems to be an unlikely place to discover ominous evidence about air pollution that's a part daily of life in Inland Southern California.

But that’s where a neurologist, worried about the children living in the metropolis’ notoriously dirty air, set out more than 10 years ago to discover how all that pollution affected people’s brains. She started by dissecting the brains of euthanized dogs. Her findings were remarkable and disturbing: Dogs exposed to the city’s most polluted neighborhoods had soot in their brains.

The discovery meant that diesel soot, one of the most toxic components of fine-particle pollution, could penetrate a biological fortress called the blood-brain barrier and injure the very organ that makes us who we are.

The work by Dr. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas was just one of thousands of studies that point to urban air pollution’s potential to harm people. But it struck me as a disturbing milestone in our evolving understand of what it means to grow up and live in Inland Southern California’s unhealthful air.

We already knew about the asthma, heart disease, lung cancer, and shorter lives. But few of us have given much thought to air pollution's effect on the brain. Yet it is now a career path for some scientists.

Dr. Calderón-Garcidueñas followed up her work on canines by examining the brains of children who had died in accidents. She found that what happened in dogs also occurred in humans.

She and others published studies linking air pollution exposure to early signs of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. Other studies associated air pollution with a range of brain maladies, including activation of genes that cause brain tumors and an apparent link between pollution exposure and the incidence of autism, depression and impaired learning ability.

When I dug into the health effects of air pollution, with support from a grant from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health Journalism Fund (an initiative of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism), I found the science to be damning.  

Beyond the brain, several studies now are linking air pollution to obesity and diabetes. Still others suggest consequences — such as a role in the development of Crohn’s disease — for the gastrointestinal system.

Children suffer the most. Pollution robs their bodies of the ability to properly develop their lungs and other organs. And they get higher doses of airborne gunk, because they breathe proportionately more air to sustain their smaller, more active bodies.

Just one outcome of a child’s pollution exposure is that he or she will start adult life with reduced lung function, resulting in more susceptibility to respiratory ailments as they age.

Scores of laboratory studies explain why. Toxic soot and other pollutants break through our biological defenses and injure and inflame our cells. That invasion triggers an immune response that, in turn, launches a biochemical war that leaves the body susceptible to multiple diseases.

Millions of people in Southern California still breathe unhealthful air, and Inland Southern California gets the brunt of it.

In my research, I found a battle being waged between agencies and people who want to protect the population from air pollution and those who see jobs in the logistics industry as salvation for a region where the economy was decimated by the recession.

Juxtaposed against the Inland region’s high unemployment rate is the area’s cheap land and plentiful freeways and rail lines, making it a hot spot for warehouse development. The distribution centers meet a demand created by growing volumes of cargo arriving from at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

More warehouses means more diesel trucks, which means more diesel pollution.

As part of the grant project, I teamed up with a Spanish interpreter, Rachel Lopez. We spoke to several families in a 101-home neighborhood in northwest Riverside County. When the houses were built in the 1950s and early 1960s, the community was surrounded by farms and dairies.

In the 1990s, farmers began selling out to warehouse developers. Now, a never-ending parade of diesel trucks passes by the tract, giving the mostly lower-income, mostly Hispanic residents an additional dose of air pollution in area where the ambient air already fails to meet health standards.

Most of the people we talk to described chronic allergy and respiratory conditions. Their eyes itched. Their noses ran. And their coughs wouldn’t go away.  Several took prescription antihistamines — a sign, a doctor told me later, that their immune systems were under assault.

One mother said she had to put out of reach a trampoline that her 4-year-old loved. Trampoline jumping and other play aggravated the youngster’s asthma, she explained in Spanish.

Another woman lamented that she has had start taking prescription drugs for allergies she first noticed about 15 year ago when the truck traffic surged. Her symptoms make it difficult for her to do chores, or even visit people, she said.

More warehousing and subsequent truck traffic is on the way. In Southern California, about 112 million square feet of warehouses have been proposed since 2010. Just about all — 97 percent — would be built in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

One project planned in Moreno Valley would, by one estimate, bring as many as 29,000 truck trips a day.

Logistics industry proponents contend that jobs and other economic benefits of such development outweigh any setbacks to clean-air goals. A big part of their argument is that air quality has greatly has improved since the 1970s and ’80s, when smog alerts regularly compelled children and the elderly to stay indoors.

But largely missing from this debate is a more recent understanding — in the scientific community, at least —that air pollution is far more unhealthful than we knew it to be.

Last year, the Southern California suffered through 111 days of unhealthful levels of ozone. Swaths of urban Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties still flunk health standards for fine particles. And anyone living near a busy roadway, rail yard or warehousing center faces an even greater risk.

We all rely on goods that have to be transported and stored in warehouses. During a community forum we hosted just after our series was published, more than one official called for a better dialogue among communities, government and industry.

Their challenge is to create jobs while minimizing the potential harm to people from truck traffic and other pollution sources — by locating warehouses away from residential areas, routing trucks away from neighborhoods and adopting the best technology available to control emissions.

Whether all those parties will sit down and do what’s right remains to be seen.