How L.A.'s Freeways, Biggest Streets and Busy Intersections Make People Sick

How L.A.'s Freeways, Biggest Streets and Busy Intersections Make People Sick

More bad news showing that people living next to a freeway or a big, congested road face super-bad health results: the MacArthur Foundation says in "How Housing Matters," that premature birth plunged among moms living near a pollution-belching toll plaza - after the plaza switched to E-Z pass, ending its stop-and-go traffic.

We reported in "Black Lung Lofts" the findings by UCLA and USC that children living within two blocks of a freeway or congested road like Hollywood Boulevard face permanent lung damage. The culprit is an invisible ribbon of particulates and exhaust. Scientists warned L.A. planners to stop zoning for family housing in these thickly polluted ribbons of land, but the L.A. City Council responded by repeatedly approving "black lung lofts"

L.A. officials helped finance this family complex, filled with kids, erected nearly atop the 5 freeway.
L.A. officials helped finance this family complex, filled with kids, erected nearly atop the 5 freeway.
Ted Soqui

Even the national media can't quite accept UCLA's and USC's extensive longitudinal studies, which show that nobody under 18 - when their young lungs are still developing - should live within 500 feet of a busy, congested roadway.

In today's news about the MacArthur study, Slate reported:

MacArthur Foundation's "How Housing Matters" initiative, looked at the effects of an E-ZPass tolling program installed on roads in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Such technology results in less pollution because cars drive right through toll plazas rather than stopping and starting. In one location within the study area, nitrogen oxide fell by 11 percent after the implementation of E-ZPass.

Another thing that went down markedly? Premature births. After analyzing birth records, researchers estimated that among the 30,000 births to mothers living within two kilometers of a toll plaza, 255 premature births and 275 low-birth-weight births were avoided. In dollar terms, the researchers - writing in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics - estimate the savings was between $9.8 and $13 million.

But Slate's writer misses the point, suggesting that the MacArthur analysis "raises the question of why we continue to encourage driving, with free on-street parking, toll-free bridges, disinvestment in public transportation, and sprawl development."

The most immediate problem,  in Los Angeles and elsewhere, is that city planners are jamming family housing and schools up against busy urban roadways, where land is cheap.

We didn't know better in the 1950s.

But we do today: That land isn't truly cheap, once you factor in the $444 million per year that MacArthur's research says would be saved if 1 million fetuses were not exposed to, and hurt by, "air pollution from congested roads" near their mom's homes.

This tiny one turned out fine.
This tiny one turned out fine.

Another report today, the 15th annual State of the Air 2014 by the American Lung Association, shows dramatic improvements in Southern California's overall number of "unhealthy days."

American Lung Association officials in California tell L.A. Weekly there's been a big drop in dangerous soot particles over the years, despite population growth in the Los Angeles metro area.

All very good.

In Los Angeles, family housing along congested roadways near transit stops is termed "transit-oriented development" - another positive thing. 

But as the Weekly reported, four years ago:

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.


Former City Councilman and planning commissioner Mike Woo.
Former City Councilman and planning commissioner Mike Woo.
Ted Soqui

Some city officials, like former councilman Mike Woo, tried to get Los Angeles planners to take seriously an even more detailed 2007 followup study by USC, but he didn't get far.

As the Weekly reported: 

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.)

Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior director for policy and advocacy at  the American Lung Association in California, says her group is acutely aware of the problem.

But the bad health outcomes in children raised in the new housing being erected next to bustling roadways is being weighed against the popular statewide push for "sustainable communities."

Sustainable communities is an idea that embraces multi-unit family housing that's purposely located along congested roadways in dense urban areas - to encourage the childrens' parents to use mass transit.

Holmes-Gen says:

"Number one, we need to bring down the pollution from all the sources as we move to zero emission vehicles" and other methods, Holmes-Gen says. "And we are working to promote a regional plan ... a community strategy that plans for more transit-oriented housing."

Somehow, she says, the compact growth movement has to be pursued "in a way that protects health, clearly. ... But there is still a lot of work to be done to better assess the impacts of current community planning and make changes to the planning process" so that asthma and other lifelong illnesses are not increased in kids. 

Holmes-Gen says people who are worried about the 2004 Children's Health Study findings "have their finger on a big issue. I agree it is a huge concern - any community built within 500 [feet] of a freeway is a big concern, according to the studies."

Is anyone in Los Angeles City Hall paying attention?

The adjoining map shows the 2010 project, "The L.A. River Corridor" development, which city officials, and even the federal government, planned to subsidize. It included a village of family housing on 2,000-plus acres crisscrossed by major freeways.

The L.A. River Corridor housing development faded away when the state disbanded all of California's redevelopment agencies, including the LA/CRA.

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