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Black Lung Lofts 

Many children being raised in L.A.'s hip, new freeway-adjacent housing are damaged for life

Saturday, Mar 6 2010
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On a recent afternoon in the Eastside neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, Fay Green stands in the hallway of her apartment complex, which sits just feet above the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the I-5 freeway. A soft-spoken black woman, she lives with her five kids and one grandson in an urban planner's idea of perfection: the dense, "Avenue 26" master-planned community, touted by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city's Department of Housing as an environmentally smart "transit-oriented development" in the city's core, efficiently served by light rail.

From the outside, the stylish-looking village of 156 condos, called Puerta del Sol, and 378 other apartments squeezed between Avenue 26 and the thundering I-5 gives off a Crate & Barrel vibe. But Green's four-bedroom unit, in the building dubbed Tesoro del Valle Family Apartments, is regularly dirtied by a heavy film of what she calls "dust." She explains, "I clean the place up, and in two or three days, I have to wipe again."

The bedroom of her young son, who has a sinus problem, requires extra attention so he can breathe; Green herself suffers from asthma. She says these sicknesses started before she moved to Avenue 26, erected less than 100 feet from one of the world's busiest, and filthiest, freeways, used by 285,000 vehicles per day. But when the weather is hot, or other conditions create smog, Green notices that many of her kids start to cough. She won't feel well, either.

click to flip through (6) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Planning Commissioner Michael Woo asked scientists to warn City Hall.
  • PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
  • Planning Commissioner Michael Woo asked scientists to warn City Hall.
 

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Green moved into the new apartment in 2006. She vaguely remembers a TV news report about the health risks of living near a freeway, but had never really thought about whether she or her young family could become sick from the clouds of vehicle exhaust and tire-brake dust that hover above, and directly next to, the I-5.

Her neighbors tell a similar story. Jesse A. Flores, in his 60s, says he never thought about the problems of living adjacent to a major freeway. "So far, I'm okay," he says. "Nothing wrong with me."

Aura Sanabria, a 20-something mother of three young kids, has the same concerns Green has. She too complains about the heavy "dust" that builds up in her apartment. "I'm always cleaning and dusting," she says.

Teenager Andrew Garcia says he and his parents never think about the invisible particles that work their way into the family home. "All we think about is that it's easier to get on the freeway or to the Metro," says Garcia, who takes the Gold Line to high school.

These residents don't know what the science shows, but L.A.'s elected leaders do.

In 2004, USC's landmark Children's Health Study made waves nationally, confirming that thousands of Southern California children living in near high-traffic roadways were contracting higher levels of crippling asthma and children living in smoggy areas were suffering impaired lung development.

The study proved long-held beliefs that fine particles such as those caused by tire rubber and brake metal — so tiny that scientists say the dust seeps through the smallest cracks and holes and thus is not blocked by air filtration systems or triple-paned windows — were burrowing into people's lungs.

When the revelations broke in The New England Journal of Medicine, L.A. was in the grips of a badly overheated housing bubble. City Hall politicians and planning officials were embracing trendy housing projects alongside freeways, especially downtown, where urbanists touting a "sustainable" lifestyle, free of suburban commuting, were moving into places like the Medici and Orsini luxury complexes — a stone's throw from the Harbor and Hollywood freeways, respectively.

L.A. officials were so thrilled with the new apartments rising next to freeways that they got into an ugly tussle with Orsini developer Geoff Palmer when he rebuffed City Hall's pressure to make room in his freeway-adjacent Medici building — for low-income families including children.

Meanwhile, on the other side of downtown, the Los Angeles Housing Department provided down payments to buyers to move into Puerta del Sol, a stylish condo complex in the Avenue 26 community where teenager Andrew Garcia breathes in the factorylike emissions and particulates created daily by 285,000 vehicles.

Since then, with the city's enthusiastic backing, including that of Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents Lincoln Heights, the village's politically well-connected developer, Percy Vaz, has marketed the project to families tired of commuting — in effect, targeting parents to live in an area scientists now know is unusually hazardous to their children's health.

"We've known for eight or 10 years there have been these impacts," says Dr. Joe Lyou, executive director of California Environmental Rights Alliance, an environmental justice group. He sees the politicians at City Hall as knowingly endangering children.

In January 2007, USC scientists followed up their widely hailed Children's Health Study with an even more detailed and damning longitudinal study of 3,600 Southern California children — and this time the scientists went down to L.A. City Hall to get the attention of the politicians.

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