By Taylor Freitas

For Southern Californians living near freeways, in what we at LA Weekly call “Black Lung Lofts,” breathing in dirty air has been a concern for years, and it's one that's been neglected by Los Angeles and federal officials.

The highly publicized Children's Health Study, released by USC in 2004, confirmed that kids living within two blocks of any freeway in Southern California contract asthma at higher levels, and some suffer lifelong lung damage.

Still, 1.2 million L.A.-area residents live within 1,000 feet of freeways, inhaling vehicle emissions and tiny particulates made up in part from tire rubber. Ignoring the studies, the L.A. City Council and the Community Redevelopment Agency keep building children's housing along freeways.

But earlier this month, three environmental organizations filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Finally! Here's the scoop:

The three groups are trying to force the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the organization that oversees air quality in the high-traffic areas of L.A., to install air monitors to track how much pollution is actually produced along the region's busy freeways.

The lawsuit was filed by the National Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, and Communities for a Better Environment in early January.

From the press release:

Pollution produced by the region's millions of diesel and gasoline powered vehicles cause a heavy health burden for everyone living in Southern California, but evidence shows that it harms families and individuals living within approximately 300 yard of LA's heavily-trafficked roadways even more.

The lawsuit cites the health risks associated with living near polluted roadways — like women having children with low birth weights or adults developing asthma or cancer — as evidence of the danger these families face every day. Our March 2010 cover story, “Black Lung Lofts,” identifies the health threats posed by living next to freeways:

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.

The lawsuit also argues that the EPA is in violation of the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, which is intended to protect citizens from breathing in polluted air. Part of the law's purpose is…

…to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation's air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population.

So if we know this air pollution is a problem, how is adding air monitors going to change anything? Well, not only could current policies be reviewed, but future building in L.A. could be affected too, the L.A. Daily News reports:

Air monitors could show that air quality near freeways is even worse than estimated, environmental advocates say. And that data could affect government decisions about where apartment complexes and schools get built — or whether roadways can be expanded.

The outcome of this case could (hopefully) initiate big changes for L.A., which has the worst ozone pollution of any city in the United States.

Last year, the same three organizations, along with the Desert Citizens Against Pollution and other groups, sued the EPA over smog in the area, saying the federal agency did not meet a deadline set in the '90s to clean up the region's air.

LA Weekly