Smog Sick

Photos by Larry Hirshowitz

Jesse Marquez: “All of Them Are Guilty.”

In 2001, the Port of Los Angeles broadcast to the Wilmington community that it planned to build a 1.6-mile wall to separate the port city from the largest port in the nation, a strategy to help address the impact of the 41,000 diesel trucks a day that drive into the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports. It was heralded as a good thing. “It came out that they wanted to build a six-lane diesel highway,” says Wilmington resident Jesse Marquez, who lives six blocks away from the L.A. port. “They were just trying to soften the blow.” Out of this plan, the 53-year-old former electrician founded the Wilmington Coalition for Clean Air to fight the project. After six months, the fledgling nonprofit boasted a membership of 60. Since then, the coalition, which changed its name to the Coalition for a Safer Environment, has stopped or helped delay 14 port projects in the last five years, including the construction of container-handling facilities at a 174-acre terminal the port leased to the China Shipping Holding Co. Because of community pressure, the port agreed to embark on a major initiative to reduce diesel emissions and spend $50 million in community projects, including an open green-space park. As part of its plan, the coalition has also demanded that the port and the city look into the health impact on the community. Marquez, who suffers from sinus and respiratory problems, blames the high incidence of asthma and respiratory illnesses on the port, but says that the city and port refuse to fund a study. “We always bring up health problems, but they don’t want to deal with it,” says Marquez. “All of them are guilty. They don’t want to do it, because they will have to pay. They are afraid of what they will find. How can you account for respiratory problems with families that have no history of it?”

—Christine Pelisek

Maria Malahi: “It’s Money Versus the Little People.” Maria Malahi used to be a championship skier who sped down trails at high altitudes in thin mountain air and sunshine. Today, she is the mother of two children with asthma and struggles with her own ­respiratory-health problems. She and her family live in a wood-frame house off gritty Gaffey Street in San Pedro, not far from the Port of Los Angeles, “about four or five blocks as the crow flies,” reckons the busy, blond-haired mother. She strongly believes that air pollution has affected the health of her family. Inside, her home is neat and seemingly free of visible dust. Air purifiers quietly hum. Yet Malahi worries because a layer of black particles already is forming on the stark white window ledges she vacuumed just a few days earlier. “You can see the pollution,” she says, as her children play with toys and watch television in the living room on a late summer afternoon. A cupboard in the kitchen is lined with medications and nebulizers — pumps that form an easily inhalable mist of medication that can open the air passages in the event of an asthma attack in her household. Asthma has forced her son Matan, 9, to give up soccer. He used to play on a team at the nearby Field of Dreams, a City of Los Angeles park located next to a truck entrance for a port terminal. Rows of diesel trucks sit in a parking lot next to the field. Just across the entrance to this park for San Pedro’s children loom the steel towers and apparatus of a gas-processing plant and the Conoco Phillips refinery. Early on a summer evening, a petroleumlike odor hangs across the area, even at the community’s Little League baseball park, just across Gaffey. Matan has learned how to use an inhaler and carries one with him at school. However, he misses a lot of classes due to his illness. “He can’t live a normal life,” says his mother. Neither can her baby daughter, Adrielle, who must use the nebulizer two or three times a day. “At times she starts choking,” her mother says. “Her face starts turning red.” Malahi herself has had to give up her beloved skiing because of a loss of lung function that may stem from an autoimmune disease she suffers from known as scleroderma. “My own health is suffering,” she says. “We’re suffering financially.” Malahi estimates that she takes her children to the doctor an average of two to six times a month to deal with respiratory-health issues. Yet she considers herself fortunate to have health insurance, though she still faces the cost of a $10 copayment for each visit, plus monthly medication bills of $78 for her son and $100 for her daughter. In addition, she has had to take her children to the hospital five times over the last six months, at a cost of a $100 copayment per visit. Her husband, a Web designer and graphic artist, moonlights to help pay the bills for his family’s medical problems. “I’m not against the port,” she confides as her brother, a longshoreman, drops in to say hello on his way home from work. “It plays a very big economic role in the country and Los Angeles. But there are ways to make it cleaner.” Yet she has little faith that regulators will force the freight industries to clean up their operations anytime soon, at least soon enough to provide her own family any relief. “It’s money versus the little people,” she laments. “They can squeeze money out of the little people.”


—William J. Kelly

Eddie Mora: “I’m Collateral Damage.”

Eddie Mora spends his days in a three-bed ward in the Little Company of Mary Sub-Acute Care Center in Torrance. The 62-year-old former bookkeeper is kept alive by a ventilator that inflates his lungs with precious air. To go outside for some sun, he must wheel the ventilator alongside him down the elevator to a small patio next to the parking lot. His only privacy is a curtain hanging between his bed and the beds next to him. He knows he is likely to live out his days here, yet he manages a smile as he recounts the story of his failed health. “It started slowly, not being able to catch my breath,” remembers Mora as he stands next to his bed with a plastic tube running from the ventilator to an opening cut into his trachea. He has not breathed on his own since he nearly dropped dead five years ago on a Wilmington street after leaving Thanksgiving dinner at his in-laws’ home. “We were coming out of the house with the turkey tray and he collapsed,” says his wife, Cecilia Mora. “I threw him in the car and rushed him to the emergency room.” Eddie Mora has lived six blocks from the Port of Los Angeles since he was 7. Mora and his wife blame his gradual loss of lung function up to that ill-fated day on his breathing pollution from the refineries, trucks, trains, ships and other industries that surround the port neighborhood of Wilmington. “I lived in Wilmington since 1943,” Mora says. “I never smoked.” Nor did he suffer from any unusual occupational exposure to chemicals or pollutants, though he was exposed to side-stream tobacco smoke both at work and in restaurants and bars, where he enjoyed drinking. As the ventilator puffs air into his lungs, Mora describes the odors, smoke and glowing refinery flares he became accustomed to while living in Wilmington, a bustling working-class neighborhood that is largely Latino and a hotbed of activity for the Los Angeles environmental-justice movement. “There was that funny smell that came from the refinery,” he recalls. “They had several explosions, and a tanker at the dock that blew up too.” Not only do the port and refineries emit pollution there, but also the oil wells that sit in weed-covered parcels throughout the area. The smokestacks of a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power generating plant rise above the community and a major sewage-treatment plant, along with numerous smaller industries scattered through neighborhoods. Mora also recalls a now-closed-down shipyard. “They should clean it up,” says Mora, who believes that air-quality regulators have not done enough to reduce pollution in his hometown of Wilmington and do not take interest in those who suffer from respiratory disease. Mora’s illness has hurt the couple economically too. His health insurance ran out, and Cecilia had to quit her full-time job and begin working part time to reduce her income enough that they could qualify for Medi-Cal, she says. “It makes me feel mad,” he says, the smile now gone. “Here I am in bed, almost like in prison. I can’t go out. I can’t do nothing. I’m collateral damage. Somebody’s got to suffer.”

—William J. Kelly

Norberta Gonzalez: “I Clean, and a Few Seconds Later It Is Dirty”

Past the liquor stores, auto-parts stores and fast-food joints are blocks of big Victorian homes, smaller cottages and modest apartment buildings. Norberta Gonzalez rented her first studio apartment in the Figueroa Corridor in 1988, a block east of the 10 freeway. The apartment was cheap and close to downtown, where she worked ironing clothing at a linen factory, making 10 cents a piece. At the time, her three children stayed behind in Mexico with her father and sister until she could carve out a living in L.A. Gonzalez paid a coyote $300 for the all-night journey across the border. “We had to walk in complete darkness,” she says. “We were afraid that immigration would stop us.” Today, Gonzalez, 45, takes care of her grandchild and two youngest children, Evelyn, 13, and Aaron, 14, who were born in Los Angeles. She shares a two-bedroom house with seven relatives and a friend, a few blocks away from her old apartment. Both Evelyn and Aaron suffer from asthma. Evelyn started with allergies and shortness of breath in 1995. She missed gym class for an entire year. “At first, the teacher was irritated. She forced her to do P.E.,” says Gonzalez. “They didn’t believe she had shortness of breath. They thought she was making it up.” Evelyn’s grades started to deteriorate in fifth grade. “I thought it was because of her friends,” says Gonzalez. “She said it was because she was always sleepy during the day. It started when she began taking the asthma medication.” Last year, she failed eighth grade and had to take summer courses to make up classes. Aaron regularly complains about chest pains. Gonzalez blames her children’s condition on the nearby factories that manufacture car parts, and the 10 freeway. “I clean, and a few seconds later it is dirty,” she says. “The government says that they protect the kids, but they don’t. The kids are getting sick. And they don’t do anything about it. We need to work as a team to find a solution.”


—Christine Pelisek

Margarita Holquin: “I Am Going to Die and Nothing Will Happen.” Seventy-seven-year-old Margarita Holguin bought her two-bedroom beige bungalow in Commerce for $10,000 in 1954; the same year, construction began on the Long Beach Freeway. “When I moved here, there were houses everywhere,” says the Texas native dryly as she stands outside her porch, pointing toward the freeway, about 100 feet from her well-manicured lawn. “I never thought it would be so bad. The freeway is packed 24/7 with trucks.” Today, her house rattles regularly when trucks go by. Nearby Washington Boulevard is like a drag strip for diesel trucks coming to and from the Union Pacific Railroad, a few blocks away. In the near future, it will only get worse. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board in January approved a $5.5 billion plan to rebuild the Long Beach Freeway. The plan, which is widely supported among transportation agencies and industry, will transform an 18-mile stretch of the freeway, from the harbors to rail yards in Commerce and East Los Angeles, to a 14-lane highway, with four lanes designed solely for trucks. The plan also calls for the demolition of up to 800 homes. Holguin believes that the agency is turning its back on residents’ health concerns about air pollution from the diesel-burning trucks, which account for 25 percent of the freeway traffic. “I am sick because of that freeway,” says Holguin, as she catches her breath. “My furniture gets black, and when I water the driveway, it is thick with dirt.” Holguin says she began to get sick 21 years ago. It started with breast cancer, then lung cancer and, more recently, a bout with colon cancer. She was also diagnosed with asthma and uses an inhaler two or three times a day. She is on so much medication it takes her three trips to bring in her prescription medication from her bedroom. “This one is for the cancer . . . This is for my breathing,” she says, then gazes at the photos of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that line her walls and tables. “I have been here so many years. My kids grew up here. They went to school here. I have a lot of memories here. I am going to die and nothing will happen.”

—Christine Pelisek

Irma Aguilar: “When He Runs, He Starts Coughing.”

Irma Aguilar can rattle off a list of things that her son Roni can’t do because of his asthma. Sports is supposed to be one of them. “When he was 5, he joined football and soccer leagues, but he had to stop,” says Aguilar, who moved with her husband from El Salvador in 1981 to an apartment on South Gramercy Place in South Los Angeles. “We had to go to the doctor every week because of the sports.” Now 13, Roni is still having problems. Cold air makes him wheeze and cough, and the heat causes him to sneeze and get itchy eyes. Breathing is painful on a daily basis. “When the air is really dirty, he coughs a lot more,” says Aguilar. “I can see him breathing rapidly.” Like so many low-income families in Los Angeles, the Aguilars moved to a highly congested roadway where the rents are more affordable. They have no choice. Money is tight. They live on her husband’s salary as a house painter. Aguilar says she hasn’t been able to work because of her son’s condition. “He is embarrassed about his illness,” she says. “He wants to be like the other kids. He won’t bring his inhaler to school and refuses to give up on sports, even when he gets too tired to participate. When he runs, he starts coughing. He tells me he doesn’t want to go to school. He feels bad. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He gets really agitated.”  

—Christine Pelisek

Cynthia Gillespie: “There Are a Lot of Chemicals in the Air.”

It’s been a long time since Cynthia Gillespie went out for the evening. “I saw the Fat Albert movie,” she says. “It was last Christmas.” Going out is no longer an option, says the 33-year-old parking-enforcement officer at Cal State Long Beach. Not since her two kids, Cameron, 6, and Garfield, 5, started to get sick. “I don’t want them to get sick and it be on someone else,” she says. “I go to work and come home. I don’t want something to happen and I didn’t get the right person and it be my fault. I have to be very selective.” Cameron had his first asthma attack at the age of 3. Garfield was 2 and ended up in the emergency room. Both depend on an oxygen machine when their breathing becomes erratic or an inhaler when it looks like an attack is imminent. It could be day or night and is hard to predict. Cameron began setting up his breathing machine on his own at the age of 3. Garfield uses his machine every day and has had four asthma attacks so far this year. “There are a lot of triggers to asthma,” says Gillespie, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend and two sons, on the same street where she grew up, Menlo Street in South Los Angeles, within a block of the 105 freeway. “It is hard to pick when they are having an attack. It is hard to go to his school and say what the symptoms are.” But the main trigger, she says, is the air. “I believe it is the pollution. I basically live on the Imperial Highway. There are a lot of chemicals in the air. We went to Oklahoma, and they didn’t have any problems there. As soon as we got back, I had to immediately give Garfield his medication.”

—Christine Pelisek

Esther Valerio: “I Felt Like I Lived at the Clinic.” Esther Valerio’s daughter Mayra, now 15, spent most of her childhood in and out of clinics and emergency rooms, constantly plagued with infections, allergies, and sneezing and coughing fits that forced her to miss at least one or two days of school a week. “The first year of her life, we were at the clinic every second day,” says Valerio, who moved from Mexico in 1986 to a one-bedroom apartment on the south end of downtown L.A., near the heavily congested thoroughfares of Vermont, Olympic and Hoover. “I felt like I lived at the clinic.” Along the way, she racked up thousands of dollars of hospital bills. She was unaware that Mayra, who was born in Los Angeles, was eligible for Medi-Cal. “The administration at the hospital said they didn’t want to see her anymore until she got Medi-Cal,” she says. Mayra’s health benefits finally kicked in when she was 2. Over the years, Mayra was constantly misdiagnosed by a string of doctors who would treat her for the flu or a severe cold. She received no long-term treatment. It wasn’t until Mayra was 9 and enrolled as a client with the Coalition for Community Health, which assesses and treats school-age children of low-income families for asthma and routinely investigates homes for asthma triggers as well as mold and lead paint, that Valerio was told that Mayra had asthma. “It has been very hard,” says Valerio. “I believe she wouldn’t have suffered those many years. I feel that my daughter never had the attention she needed, and I felt I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t have a Social Security number, and because I didn’t pay the bills, I didn’t think I had the right to medical care.”

—Christine Pelisek

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