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Choked By Truck Traffic

Citizen Scientists Lead Push for Clean Air

New America Media, News Report, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Aug 14, 2008

Editor's Note: Residents of a San Francisco neighborhood -- straddled by freeways and racked by health issues related to air pollution -- tested the air, conducted surveys and are leading the effort to reduce soot creating truck traffic. Ngoc Nguyen is a reporter for New America Media.

SAN FRANCISCO - Alessandra Ortiz, 16, grew up in the Portola district of San Francisco, where two of the city's busiest traffic arteries - highways 101 and 280 -- criss-cross. Two-hundred thousand vehicles travel along highway 280 everyday, including heavy-duty trucks carrying construction materials from the southeastern to the western part of the city.

"You can smell when a bus passes byyou can smell the smog," Ortiz says. "I live by the 101 freeway and I smell it everyday, so now I'm used to it."

Although she had asthma as a child, Ortiz never realized traffic pollution could affect her health - until she and her neighbors began measuring the pollution levels on their blocks.

Armed with traffic pollution data they collected themselves, Ortiz and several dozen youth rallied last week on the steps of City Hall, calling on city officials to take steps to reduce traffic pollution in the southeastern communities of the Excelsior, Portola, Visitacion Valley and the Bayview.

Residents want the city to reroute trucks and replace older diesel buses with zero-emission hybrid vehicles.

"Most of us don't have the vocabulary and knowledge to understand pollutants and how traffic is routed through the city," says Charlie Sciammas, an organizer with People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights, or PODER.

He says this movement of citizens becoming scientists has helped residents put an environmental health lens on their own neighborhoods. The southeastern districts are home to vibrant ethnic communities, including Asian and Latino working-class families and the largest concentration of youth and elderly in the city.

Tapping the knowledge of community members, PODER organizers asked residents to snap photos of "healthy" and "unhealthy" parts of the neighborhood. Healthy aspects included families and children, libraries, schools, clean streets and trees. Residents named debris, a glut of parked cars, traffic and graffiti as unhealthy aspects of the neighborhood.

With tools and training provided by city public health officials, residents interviewed neighbors about traffic and air quality, counted trucks and buses on busy intersections and sampled the air quality.

They monitored the air for particulate pollution, ultra-fine particles that can lodge deep in the lungs. Particle pollution includes soot, ash and diesel exhaust, spewed into the air from the burning of fossil fuels and wood.

Sciammas says the results of the community's air sampling was "inconclusive," but modeling data from the city public health department showed residents were exposed to unhealthy levels of particle pollution.

A poll of Excelsior residents found 46 percent of those surveyed said they smelled pollution in front of their homes. At one intersection in the district, volunteers counted over 107 medium and big trucks passing over a period of an hour, amounting to 10 percent of overall traffic.

Megan Gaydos of the city's public health department says looking at traffic pollution at the neighborhood level has revealed valuable information.

"What was surprising to us was the degree to which [the Excelsior] was impacted. A lot of houses are within 100 feet of the freeway and have 200,000 vehicles going by them per day," she said. "Trucks and buses are going through the narrow streets. That's something we didn't know."

Linda Weiner of the American Lung Association of California, who also attended the rally at city hall, describes the citys southeastern districts as "fence-line" communities those located within 500 feet of the freeway.

"When you have that many vehicles in one neighborhood, with so much density of population, you're going to have health problems," Weiner says.

Particle pollution causes acute health effects, such as heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks and an increase in emergency room visits. The Excelsior has had the highest number of people hospitalized for asthma for six years in a row. Long-term pollution also causes abnormal lung development in children.

Gaydos says that new schools, senior centers, childcare centers and hospitals should not be located within 500 feet of the freeway. If new buildings must be constructed near freeways, advanced air filtration (HVAC) systems or thicker walls to reduce noise can help.

Residents who live blocks away from freeways say they want the city to find alternative routes for heavy-duty trucks and replace older buses with zero-emission ones. Eighty-three percent of buses that serve southeast San Francisco are diesel vehicles.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesperson Judson True says diesel buses are equipped with filters, or scrubbers, that greatly reduce pollution.

"We're doing our own counts of trucks, True says. We do have truck-prohibited areas in San Francisco and we're happy to look at furthering those restrictions."

Across the bay, residents of West Oakland have successfully pushed the city to pass an ordinance to re-route truck traffic between the Port of Oakland and major highways 880 and 980.

But even this isnt comprehensive enough to stem pollution from an expansive transit hub that includes the Port of Oakland, a major airport, trains and trucks. Margaret Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, estimates there will be 22,000 truck trips per day on Oakland's roadways by 2010.

"We don't have that concentration of facilities in San Francisco," says Gordon, who adds that identifying the traffic pollution hotspots in the city is a critical first step.

Leadership High School student Einar Sevilla, who lives in the Mission District, says understanding traffic pollution in the Excelsior has spurred residents to become more active in the city's planning process.

"People from the community should be involved in the process," he says. "No one knows what the community needs more than the community."

Related Articles:

Ethnic Californians Want Government to Do More on Environment

Truckers Divided Over Cost of Cutting Emissions

Living Without a Car: My New American Responsibility

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