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But even crowded Wilshire Boulevard doesn't carry anything approaching 285,000 cars per day, nor does any L.A. surface street. The sheer volume on the city's freeways is a key reason why people are getting sick.
Yet Vaz doesn't think a health-hazard warning for renters or buyers is necessary. In fact, his tenant Sanabria, the mother of three young children, is more concerned about homeless people sleeping nearby, and neighbor Jesse Flores worries about gang activity in the area. "They're killing each other like fools," Flores says.
Vaz reports that no one — not the city Planning Department nor Ed Reyes, chairman of the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee, who represents Lincoln Heights — has spoken to him about enacting buffer zones or requiring a disclosure statement for housing placed within 500 feet of freeways. (Through a spokeswoman, Reyes tells the Weekly he's "unavailable" to talk about the health impacts caused when City Hall approves housing that abuts freeways.)
"If you're buying a home near a freeway, you know it's there," Vaz says. "The freeway is hitting you in the face. Most people are buying and renting because there is a freeway." Moreover, he is seeing more and more units erected near the freeways, in part, because "there's a shortage of land and people will build where they can," even on often-expensive freeway-adjacent land.
With city officials now focused on preventing the city government of Los Angeles from sliding into a deeper fiscal crisis, a debate over the health of tens of thousands of local children is unlikely to be welcomed by the City Council or Villaraigosa.
According to Woo, neither the City Council, led by electric car–driving Council President Eric Garcetti, nor Villaraigosa, who wants Los Angeles to be "the cleanest and greenest city" in America, has shown an interest in the 500-foot buffers or hazard-disclosure regulations suggested by the scientists. Inside City Hall, where real estate developers have enjoyed outsized influence for the past 100 years or so, such restrictions, Woo says, would "probably be very controversial."
But neither is the issue being pushed by the environmental community in Southern California, which has been much more focused on lobbying the California Legislature on state environmental laws and global warming.
"I can't think of an [environmental] group that's fighting development near freeways," says Martha Arguello, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit, public-health advocacy group. "I'm hard-pressed."
The nonprofit organization Breathe L.A. — which promotes itself as a 107-year-old public-benefit group dedicated to "clean air and healthy lungs in Los Angeles County" — is giving its 2010 Breath of Life Award to District 9 City Councilwoman Jan Perry. The strongly pro-development Perry has pushed for lofts, condos and apartments next to and near downtown's jammed freeways. She has not pushed any plan to warn Angelenos about the serious health effects on children who move into that housing.
According to Breathe L.A.'s announcement, sent to the media a few days ago, Jan Perry promotes "clean air and healthy lungs ... each and every day."
Environmentalists, says Bahram Fazeli of Communities for a Better Environment, have perhaps missed an opportunity by focusing on other issues, such as cleaning up the ports and working with the Mayor's Office to sign off on a "cumulative-impacts" directive.
Although the directive has been slow in coming, it would ideally force city departments to look into how specific, major projects, such as a new oil refinery or airport expansion, add overall pollution to neighborhoods — and then plan accordingly. But the cumulative-impacts rule probably would be silent on the more direct threat to human health — housing being built right next to L.A. freeways.
"Maybe we made a mistake, maybe we should have gone with (freeway-adjacent housing)," Fazeli offers. "But we always think about these things, and think about strategy, and we only have limited resources."
Some environmentalists also act as cheerleaders for dense urban housing, including that along freeways, arguing that it helps to combat global warming by discouraging suburban living. Their focus is not on the health of individuals but the planet.
For all of these reasons, the people who move their children into unusually unhealthy, freeway-frontage projects fall into the cracks.
Romel Pascual, Los Angeles acting deputy mayor for energy and environment, says Villaraigosa "is someone who looks at public health and thinks it's very important."
But the mayor has yet to look seriously at the danger of living next to the freeway. Says Pascual: "It's worth exploring."
On August 14, 2008, USC preventive medicine professor Rob McConnell and the university's community outreach expert Andrea Hricko sat before Villaraigosa's political appointees on the city Planning Commission to share USC's 2007 freeway-housing findings. The meeting had been arranged by planning commissioner Mike Woo, who was worried about freeway-adjacent housing.
Jim Gauderman's USC colleague, environmental-health researcher McConnell, told the Los Angeles Planning Commission, "The very smallest particles pass right through the respiratory system and into the body, including the brain." McConnell and Hricko urged city planners to push for a 500-foot buffer zone between new housing and freeways or, at least, pursue an ordinance requiring developers to disclose to prospective renters or buyers the risks of living within one block of freeways.