Unhealthy Truth about California's Ports

Published on
October 18, 2010

If you live in California, you see it all of the time. Big rig trucks driving alongside you on freeways and roads. Freight trains carrying goods up and down the coast. Ships docked at container shipping ports both in southern and northern California.

On a typical day in the Golden State, it's reported that over one-quarter of a million big rig trucks are on the roads, 30,000 containers aboard massive ships leave or arrive at our coastal ports and 1,200 trains are in operation. Container traffic at Los Angeles and Long Beach ports has tripled in the past 15 years. And there seems to be no end in sight. Most major U.S. ports are undergoing expansions to accommodate even greater cargo volumes – the result of globalization on a grand and unprecedented scale.

But at what cost? 

The unhealthy truth is that marine ports are among the most poorly regulated sources of pollution in the nation, releasing largely unchecked quantities of health-endangering air and water pollution. According to the American Lung Association, Californians breathe the worst air in the country, with Los Angeles topping the list as one of the most polluted cities in the nation.

And who populates these port-side communities? You might have guessed -- People of low income and color.  People who can't afford to live anywhere else.

In a nutshell, all of this pollution is making people sick and the documented health effects are staggering. The diesel exhaust-filled environment damages lung tissue, causing an array of illnesses from asthma to permanent lung damage to cancer.  And according to a recent Kaiser children's health study, kids are the most likely victims in the path of the storm -- subject to higher incidents of school absences, prone to chronic lung disease and suffering more often from severe asthma.  Furthermore, many living and working in these communities are undocumented and, consequently tend to not seek out proper medical care.

However, there are groups advocating on behalf of these communities, bridging the gap between the largely unchecked environmental impact of growing port trucking traffic and the crisis in healthcare needs it creates.