By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The new study showed that alarming numbers of children ages 10 to 18 who live within about a block — 528 feet — of a Southern California freeway suffer reduced lung development, a deficit likely to persist through adulthood, and which may increase the risk of respiratory disease and premature death. (Three weeks ago, a group of USC and European scientists delivered more bad news: Hardening of the arteries is twice as common among Angelenos living within a block of an L.A. freeway.)
But instead of playing a key role in the city's planning decisions, USC's 2007 study was ignored. City Hall leaders, dominated by the desires of developer-contributors and a strong chorus of "density hawks," were rewriting hard-fought Community Plans, tossing out height and size restrictions on apartment complexes citywide, and permitting the destruction of thousands of units of historic and affordable housing.
Through city zoning laws, subsidies, city pension-fund investments and other policies, city leaders have peddled freeway-abutting housing as "smart" land use that satisfies developers' push for "in-fill" projects on "underutilized" land. At one point during the frenetic housing boom in 2006, Villaraigosa and city-pension trustees held a press conference at the Puerta del Sol condos in the Avenue 26 development perched above the I-5 freeway. The mayor touted the development as a model example of middle-class housing in which to "raise a family" — a view that remains unshaken inside City Hall today.
Today, in fact, the Department of City Planning chief Gail Goldberg and the Office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa concede to L.A. Weekly that nobody in City Hall is tracking, or can even estimate, the number of children who have moved into housing erected within 500 feet of freeways since scientists documented the chilling health effects. Los Angeles lawmakers are making no effort to measure the human health costs of such housing. And with the shattered L.A. housing market now showing the first few signs of recovery, City Hall is set, once again, to embrace freeway-adjacent housing that's marketed to families.
One of the few elected leaders willing to be open about the unfolding situation is Hollywood-area City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who says, "It would be great if we could call a time-out and try to plan better, but it's not practical." He's given his blessing to freeway-adjacent housing in his district, and he insists, "We need to save jobs."
Nor do the city's planning department, Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council warn buyers and tenants about the hazards of moving kids right next to freeways — the relatively modest disclosure rule sought two years ago by USC's scientists that some developers say they could live with.
"Regulation is years behind the science," says Bahram Fazeli, a researcher and policy analyst for Communities for a Better Environment, a grassroots environmental-justice organization that focuses on issues like addressing the "cumulative impacts" of smog. Of the Southern California freeway studies, Fazeli stresses, "The evidence that children are harmed is overwhelming."
L.A.'s major freeways were mostly built in the 1950s and 1960s, slashing through cohesive residential neighborhoods and creating strange dead-end streets in places like Hollywood, Westwood, Toluca Lake, Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights. In the 1980s and 1990s, when new housing sprouted up beside freeways in West L.A., Reseda, Studio City, Hollywood and many other areas, environmentalists warned that purposely placing housing next to the world's busiest and most polluted freeways was a bad idea. They argued that any public good — providing affordable housing or addressing pent-up ownership demand for condos — was outweighed by extensive health costs to people and society.
But the science wasn't there to back up the activists — until a team of mostly USC scientists published the 2004 multimillion-dollar Children's Health Study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Studying more than 1,700 children, scientists compared communities that enjoy clean air, such as Lake Arrowhead and Alpine, to those with dirty air, such as Riverside and Long Beach. The study showed high rates of underdeveloped lungs among children in the polluted areas. The implications were clear: long-term health problems ranging from asthma to early death for significant numbers of children being raised in Southern California.
"That study had a tremendous impact because of the quality of the research," says environmentalist Lyou, who also sits on the governing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which sets air pollution–control policies affecting more than 16 million people. "It really shocked a lot of people. It not only confirmed what people in the field already knew, but it also created an undebatable view on the issue."
Around the same time, UCLA also published important findings showing that pregnant women who lived within 750 feet of a freeway had a greater-than-normal risk of delivering premature babies.
When USC scientists Rob McConnell, Jim Gauderman and others followed up the 2004 study by researching a much larger group of children — specifically to look into health problems caused by living within 528 feet of Southern California's crammed freeways — the findings worried epidemiologist Gauderman enough to testify before the City Council.
In Council chambers on April 25, 2007, he warned: "It's not just watery eyes or coughing after a particularly polluted day. ... We're talking about long-term risks of asthma, long-term risks of reduced lung development in children."
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