Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Gee Gah Go"

I’m not much of a shopper, but I enjoyed preparing for our son’s birth. I snatched up onesies embroidered with frogs and turtles, blankets dotted with duckies, books about jungles and gardens, and lots of stuffed animals. I diligently, but unenthusiastically, drug home a couple of toy cars. Living in the nation's smog capitol, it's hard for me to be enthusiastic about cars and trucks. Despite a new generation of cleaner cars, vehicles--especially trucks and other diesel burners--are the main culprit.

A year and a half later, my home looks like the East LA interchange. Dump trucks roam the

hallway, a cement mixer cruises the kitchen, a school bus bleats the ABC song even after a plunge in the tub (drat!). Among my son’s first and most passionately uttered words were “tash tuck,” “backhoe,” “’cool bus,” and “gee gah go.” Gee gah go—Things That Go—is the subtitle of several books for boys with this fixation. I’m now familiar with such classics as Good Morning, Digger. My son would be content to stand on a busy street corner for hours—if I’d let him.

The problem is: busy streets are not good places for kids—or grown ups—to spend a lot of time. Some of the highest levels of pollution in our region are found on/near freeways, and roads with a lot of traffic. In this blog, I’ve talked about baby products that might be problematic, but air pollution is a known and well studied
hazard. And it’s the only thing—that I know of—in your baby’s environment that doesn’t meet federal or state health standards. Yes, LA is not as smoggy as it used to be, but so far this year the region has had more than 95 days when the air didn’t meet health standards for ozone. You probably know that a lot of pollutants blow inland and coalesce in places like Riverside, but parts of LA County still have problems, too. For more than a decade, USC researchers have studied kids who live with peak pollution. They found these children are five times more likely to have poor lung function. So when they come down with respiratory illnesses such as a cold, it can be harder for these kids to recover. Low lung function also has long-term consequences; it's a significant risk factor for all causes of mortality. UC Irvine researcher Michael Kleinman says weak lungs can lead to cardiovascular trouble: "The heart and the brain are two organs that cannot tolerate low oxygen supply. So when the heart receives blood with less oxygen, the heart has to work harder. It’s got to pump more blood to deliver the same amount of oxygen to all the other tissues. " Air pollution also exacerbates asthma. One state study suggests kids who live near busy roads are more likely to get asthma than kids who don't.

So you might be feeling helpless: “I can’t do anything about the air!”
Actually, you can. Here are a few ideas:
  • Drive a cleaner car. Many organizations have ranked them.

  • Let leaves RIP: leaf litter is good for your soil, so stop blowing them and cut pollution. Air quality officials say the average leaf blower emits as much pollution in one year as 80 new cars. Also, make your next lawnmower electric.

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: much of the air pollution in our region spews from ships, trains and trucks hauling goods from the ports.

  • Take walks on less-trafficked streets

  • Limit the time your child is on the freeway: hitting the recirculation button on your car doesn't keep pollution out.
  • Don’t have your child exercise near freeways or roads with a lot of traffic.

  • Report smoking vehicles: call 800-CUT-SMOG

  • For more information, check out this transcript of the first two parts of my radio story on schools that are too close to freeways.

    An Education in Pollution

    Just sit by an LA freeway for a few minutes and watch hundreds of cars and trucks roll past … and you’ll understand why there’s a growing body of research that suggests the concentrated air pollution from a busy thoroughfare can be hazardous to your health. That’s why in 2003, California passed a law to restrict school construction along busy freeways or roads … but that doesn’t do much for the hundreds of schools already built there. KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol this week explores what can be done. Here’s the first installment in her three-part series:

    (sound of kids and roads)

    SETZIOL: At Edison Elementary in Long Beach, school is out early. Kids are playing tetherball and kicking around soccer balls. Parent Evangelina Ramirez has just picked up her eight-year-old daughter, Lorena. Ramirez says, in many ways she’s pleased with the school.

    RAMIREZ: It’s a good school. They have wonderful things they do for the kids.

    SETZIOL: But she says,

    RAMIREZ: The only problem is between the exit and the –I don’t know how you say it, la salida and la entrada from the freeway.
    SETZIOL: entry and exit from the freeway.
    RAMIREZ: Yes. Entry and exit.

    SETZIOL: It’s the 710 Freeway … with busy on-and off-ramps right next to Edison playground … and that worries Ramirez. She’s a volunteer with the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, and she’s heard that air pollution next to freeways and busy roads can be four to ten times worse than background levels. And he daughter Lorena--a sweet-faced girl with shy eyes and a toothy smile--has asthma.

    LORENA: when cars are passing…I feel a big wad in my stomach and I can’t breath. It’s like hitting the wad and it doesn’t let the air come out.

    SETZIOL: Asthma isn’t just a health problem. It’s an education problem. When a youngster like Lorena Ramirez can’t catch her breath, she often can’t make it to school either … and kids who miss school don’t do as well in class or on standardized tests.

    Dr. Rob McConnell at USC’s Keck School of Medicine studies respiratory diseases in children. More asthma at schools near busy roads is one air pollution problem, but Dr. McConnell says it’s not the only one … :

    MCCONNELL: There’s also some suggestion that these local concentrations right around roadways may also impair the level of function of the lungs.

    SETZIOL: That’s important because poor lung function leaves people vulnerable to emphysema and lung disease later in life. And the state Air Resources Board says proximity to freeways--especially those heavy with trucks--increases a person’s cancer risk.

    The Long Beach Unified School District says, while it hasn’t monitored pollution at Edison Elementary, it has studied it at a school site it believes to be in a comparable location … and hasn’t found a problem. But the Alliance for Children with Asthma has done its own monitoring at the school and found elevated levels of pollution. To know for sure, more testing is needed.

    RAMIREZ: Evangelina Ramirez – Lorena’s mom - says many Spanish-speaking parents don’t even know their kids are having symptoms of asthma.

    RAMIREZ: We want to receive more help with kids who have problems and don’t have insurance. We need health for everybody in the community. We cannot fix the whole problem, but we can do something together and we can make changes together.

    RAMIREZ: That’s the challenge at Edison Elementary. It’s the same challenge faced by parents at more than 200 schools in Los Angeles. We’ll look at story tomorrow.

    Ilsa Setziol … 89-point-3 …KPCC.


    There’s a growing body of research that underscores the health hazards from living, working or going to school near a busy freeway or major road. The hazard is from air pollution … but how much of a hazard isn’t clear. The answer is important to school districts with campuses along major thoroughfares. They have to decide whether to spend millions for new air filtering systems so kids can breathe a little easier. In part two of our series on schools and freeways, KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol looks at how LA schools are trying to clear the air:
    (sound of loud roads)

    SETZIOL: One of the busiest freeway intersections in LA County is the East LA Interchange. It’s where the 60, 10, and 5 merge near Soto Street. It’s also the location of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Soto Street School. Margarita Sanchez sends her daughter Meli here.

    SANCHEZ: We have increasing amounts of down times because of flus and coughs and colds that are exacerbated by the pollution. It makes us more susceptible and less immune.

    SETZIOL: The State Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment - or OEHHA - has mapped California schools near busy roadways. OEHHA defined “near” as 150 meters from a road or a freeway … which is about 500 feet. Bart Ostro is chief of OEHHA’s air pollution epidemiology unit.

    OSTRO: Roughly 7% of all the schools—and school children—are exposed to 25,000 vehicles a day or more. And there’s nothing sacrosanct about 25,000, but there are some studies that indicate that that’s a bright line that above that level you start to see effects related to traffic exposure.

    SETZIOL: More than 200 LAUSD campuses – including Soto Street School – are on that list. That’s about 30-percent of LAUSD’s K-through-12 schools. However, it’s important to note that what counts is being DOWNWIND of a busy roadway. A school could be smack dab next to a freeway and not have a problem—if it’s upwind. So it’s not clear how many of the schools statewide might be stuck in a pocket of polluted air. But the OEHHA did study Bay Area kids who go to schools downwind of freeways vs. those that don’t.

    OSTRO: We found higher rates of asthma and bronchitis in children attending schools near high traffic areas. We caution to say that this doesn’t mean the exposures only occur at the school or during school time.

    SETZIOL: LAUSD recently began studying pollution sources near its schools. It started with industrial facilities and will soon survey roadways. Angelo Bellomo is director for environmental health and safety. He says they’ve already asked local air officials to study the health risks of their campuses near industries.

    BELLOMO: We need Caltrans and the transportation authorities to do the same thing with regard to transportation corridors in proximity to schools.

    SETZIOL: Bellomo wants more data before the school district considers mitigation measures, like upgrading air conditioning systems at the schools. He thinks the additional information will be required to convince lawmakers to come up with money for the problem. But a school district near LAX isn’t waiting. Administrators there are moving ahead improve the air in their classrooms. That’s our story tomorrow.

    Ilsa Setziol … 89-point-3 … KPCC.

    1 comment:

    1. As a non-driver who gets around in Los Angeles by bike, transit and foot, I am glad to read this installment of your blog. I've been chided for making anti-car comments about toys that my brothers and sisters have provided for my nieces and nephews. They won't let them play with toy guns, but they will let them play with toy cars. I don't know the math, but I suspect that cars' body count is higher than guns. The auto comes with more ancillary destruction, too - ie: unhealthy rivers, unhealthy air, obesity, oil wars, global warming.

      Unfortunately it doesn't get much better as the kids grow older - there are plenty of electronic games based on driving. Luckily kids enjoy bicycling, too!


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