While walking along the Los Angeles River embankment in West Long Beach recently, Maria Reyes suddenly felt her throat tighten. She couldn't breathe. Her vision clouded, and she collapsed to the ground.
As an onlooker called 911, dozens of diesel trucks sped past her on the adjacent 710 freeway.
The incident, from which she recovered, did more than scare her. It motivated her to participate in a UCLA-organized effort to educate residents breathing in some of the L.A. area’s worst air about the science behind air pollution.
Community activist Elena Rodriguez (left) and Maria Reyes, a participant in ALERT, are spreading the word among residents in West Long Beach about air pollution in their neighborhood. Photos by Letisia Marquez.
Reyes’ suspicion that air pollution was the reason why she and her neighbors are struggling with asthma and other respiratory conditions spurred her to join ALERT (Assessment of Local Environmental Risk Training), part of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s Health DATA Program.
ALERT is designed to educate residents about the emissions generated by trucks, trains and other traffic in and around their neighborhoods. Carried out with assistance from the UCLA Center for Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences, the project is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Through the UCLA project, 54 community residents, including Reyes, learned about the toll air pollution is taking on two neighborhoods with a major portion of Southern California’s smog and diesel emissions — West Long Beach and Boyle Heights. Both neighborhoods sit in the middle of a maze of freeways shuttling diesel-powered freight trucks to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
ALERT bridges the gap between research and grassroots advocacy, two efforts that typically work independently of each other. In this case, however, air pollution experts from UCLA and other local universities taught ALERT participants as well as attended classes with them. Many of the residents were Latino immigrants being trained to educate others about air pollution. As a result of this coalition, research projects are now taking place in Long Beach and Boyle Heights.
"All too often researchers will come and do the research in the community, and their findings are not shared," said Peggy Toy, director of UCLA’s Health DATA Program. "By building trust in a relationship from the onset, we engage researchers and the community. And now, we are moving forward to work together on studies around air quality."
Reyes, 50, is a case in point. Long a member of the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma and East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice’s Generación Verde (Green Generation), the Mexican immigrant was the first to admit that she was neither familiar nor comfortable with the science of air pollution and the reams of research data on the subject.
But ALERT training put Reyes in touch with such experts as UCLA’s John Froines, a leading air pollution expert, and data from various state and federal sources. It showed her the value and credibility such expertise can bring to her efforts as a community activist. ALERT participants then share their newfound knowledge with neighbors. When surveyed, 75 percent of those in the project said they had used environmental health data "much more" or "more frequently" than before their involvement with ALERT.
So far, ALERT participants have reached out to more than 350 other community members, some of whom have spoken out against a proposed expansion of a Union Pacific train and diesel truck facility and the construction of a new rail yard by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in West Long Beach.
Rodriguez and Reyes stand in a railyard that Union Pacific wants to expand, a move opposed by community activists. Reyes lives on the other side of the railyard.
"There are already hundreds and hundreds of diesel trucks that come through our neighborhood on a daily basis, and we don’t want any more," Reyes said. "Hearing what was said at ALERT [classes] helps us prove that all this air pollution does affect our health."
The "domino" impact air pollution can have on an entire community — affecting schools, health care costs, recreational options and even jobs — is a crucial concept that residents need to understand, Toy said.
"Health is an aspect of every part of life," Toy said. "For example, when children aren’t healthy, they’re not able to go to school or perform academically. Family members lose income because they have to stay home to take care of them or spend money on health care. So it’s important for community members to understand how broadly a stream of trucks motoring through their neighborhood can affect them."
During the last ALERT meeting, Froines, a UCLA professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Southern California Particle Center, discussed how ultrafine particles from diesel and other sources of air pollution penetrate human cells and change their chemical makeup, initiating a process that causes different diseases.
Because of air pollution, Froines said, "we know we have lung disease, heart disease, preterm birth, low-term birth weight. We know we have neurological effects." More cases of neck and lung cancer have been found among people living along the 710 freeway than for residents located in other parts of Southern California, he added.
"We can’t identify one chemical that causes everything," said Froines as many of the ALERT trainers listened on headsets to a Spanish translation. "There are thousands of chemicals in those particles. It’s a combination — the ‘soup’ — that causes disease."
On the 710 Freeway in Long Beach, Froines said researchers found as many as 3 million particles packed into a space the size of a sugar cube; that’s the maximum amount of particles air can hold.
"This has had a huge impact on me," said Reyes, after listening intently. "I feel like packing my bags and going to the mountains."
Reyes’ neighborhood of approximately 35,000 people is a compelling example of how air pollution can be "built in" to a community's structure. Their homes are bounded by the 710 freeway on the east, the 405 freeway on the north and the 103 freeway on a section of its western border. The freeways shuttle diesel trucks and other vehicles to and from the largest port complex in the country and what some say is the biggest source of air pollution in Southern California.
Members of the Cambodian community are part of ALERT's next phase: to conduct a pilot research project among Long Beach's Cambodian American community that will pinpoint air pollution sources and health risks. A similar project will go on in Boyle Heights.
Her apartment, where she has lived for the past 22 years, is less than 200 feet from the Union Pacific Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, where every year an estimated 600,000 diesel trucks haul freight containers loaded with goods, from flat-screen TVs to clothes. These containers are then loaded onto trains for distribution throughout the region and beyond.
If the facility is expanded as proposed, up to 1.2 million trucks could flood Reyes' neighborhood, according to the advocacy group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.
"This area is called the ‘diesel death zone,’" said Elena Rodriguez, a West Long Beach community activist. Her voice was nearly drowned out by big rigs rumbling by on the 103 freeway. "We absolutely do not want any more trucks or trains coming through our neighborhood. The air pollution is already bad here, and it will only get worse."
When Rodriguez’s daughter, Zuliaca, attended Hudson Elementary School, located less than a half a mile from the freeway, she suffered constantly from respiratory illnesses and had to use an inhaler. The school would sometimes cancel recess when air pollution levels skyrocketed.
"Programs such as ALERT are important because we can say a study from UCLA demonstrated that air pollution does impact our health and our children’s health," Rodriguez said. "We live through this every day, but to have a study demonstrating what is taking place is very important."