Like a warped Willy Wonka movie, the kids divide up into four tables. You have the Charlie girls (the Miss Goodie Two Shoes). The Verucas, with their Louis Vuitton–knockoff purses. The shrinking-Violet wallflower girls, the tough boys, and then the runts (the 8-year-olds). They are told sans Oompa Loompa that trucks, ships and motorcycles can hurt them. That when their parents point to a ship at the dock, or to a “choo-choo,” they are pointing at agents of death. Okay, well, not quite death, but they must think it strange that these cool machines could betray them.
All 20 kids at the Long BeachBoys and Girls Club are here to take part in the O24U Clean Air Patch program, sponsored by the American Lung Association of Los Angeles County. The organization also offers a Toxic Tour for older kids. The idea is to make children and young adults aware of the dangers of air pollution and inspire them while they are growing up fast to do something about it.
Clean Air Patch instructor Colleen Callahan looks like a blond version of Snow White. She leads the group in making smogcatchers. Each kid smears some Vaseline onto a piece of plastic bag and tethers it with a piece of yarn to a chainlink fence. The Mad Max dreamcatchers will catch the pollutants while they flop in the wind for a week. When the bags are untied, what’s stuck to them is scraped onto a white sheet of paper.
“It looks like boogers!” someone yells. The petroleum, which was clear and white, is now brownish green, mucousy and, yes, boogery, because of the air.
Alycia, at the Charlie-girls table, grabs a stick and pushes the goober jelly onto a paper, declaring, “It’s just nature.” Caught among the bugs, spiders and leaves are tiny black speckles. A simplified explanation ensues about how they are affected by different kinds of pollution.
When asked who in the group has asthma, half the kids raise their hands. In less-polluted areas, the average is one in six. But many of the kids in this room come from Hudson Elementary School, next to the 710 freeway, where a perpetual haze of diesel smoke hangs over their playground, like someone exhaling cigarettes in their face all day long. Maybe it's this vested interest that has them paying attention. At the end of the program, they are rewarded with the golden ticket — a Clean Air Patch, though a rumor spreads like wildfire that it’s a flashlight.
Targeting older kids, however, will take more than flashlights. And on a hot summer day, with the first day of school fast approaching, only four teens had signed up — all girls — for “The Toxic Tour.” We pile into a van and drive around Wilmington, past the ports with their giant cranes that look like Imperial Walkers from Star Wars. We pass a fair number of big rigs on the way, and Jesus, our guide on the tour and a member of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), tells us that 40,000 trucks move through this area each day, that Long Beach has about 400,000 residents, and, for those slow at math, “that’s one tractor-trailer for every 10 residents, and in the next few years, that number is expected to double.”
Jesus goes on to explain that the community has been bought out, in a sense, by the large corporations that give money to schools for scholarship funds. He talks about environmental racism. Ashley, with her highlighted hair and pink rubber-banded braces, suggests, “Can’t my friends and I, like, go around with, like, UNICEF boxes or something?”
“There is no zoning here,” says Jesus, as we pull down Arcadia Street. And, on cue, we are looking at a giant warped Emerald City of towers — the British Petroleum refinery, in someone’s back yard. A resident approaches our group and says, “Sometimes the ground shakes at night, you know, when they burn the gas off.” Jesus tells her they aren’t supposed to do that, gives her his card, and tells her to come to a CBE meeting, where they will work to monitor the flaring, a process that releases harmful gas into the air. Janice takes the card but, like a battered wife, makes excuses for the company: “Well, they have to burn off the gas, what are they gonna do? You get used to the rumbles.”
When we are back in the van, Jesus shakes his head and says, “See what I’m talking about? People don’t want to get involved.” Just then, Ashley’s pink cell phone rings; it’s her boyfriend. We officially lose Ashley. She spends the rest of the trip on the phone. I guess the lesson in all of this is, if you’re going to teach kids about smog, get to them early. Particulate matter is no match for hormones.