On a recent afternoon in the Eastside neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, Fay Green stands in the hallway of her apartment complex, which sits just feet above the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the I-5 freeway. A soft-spoken black woman, she lives with her five kids and one grandson in an urban planner's idea of perfection: the dense, "Avenue 26" master-planned community, touted by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city's Department of Housing as an environmentally smart "transit-oriented development" in the city's core, efficiently served by light rail.
From the outside, the stylish-looking village of 156 condos, called Puerta del Sol, and 378 other apartments squeezed between Avenue 26 and the thundering I-5 gives off a Crate & Barrel vibe. But Green's four-bedroom unit, in the building dubbed Tesoro del Valle Family Apartments, is regularly dirtied by a heavy film of what she calls "dust." She explains, "I clean the place up, and in two or three days, I have to wipe again."
The bedroom of her young son, who has a sinus problem, requires extra attention so he can breathe; Green herself suffers from asthma. She says these sicknesses started before she moved to Avenue 26, erected less than 100 feet from one of the world's busiest, and filthiest, freeways, used by 285,000 vehicles per day. But when the weather is hot, or other conditions create smog, Green notices that many of her kids start to cough. She won't feel well, either.
Green moved into the new apartment in 2006. She vaguely remembers a TV news report about the health risks of living near a freeway, but had never really thought about whether she or her young family could become sick from the clouds of vehicle exhaust and tire-brake dust that hover above, and directly next to, the I-5.
Her neighbors tell a similar story. Jesse A. Flores, in his 60s, says he never thought about the problems of living adjacent to a major freeway. "So far, I'm okay," he says. "Nothing wrong with me."
Aura Sanabria, a 20-something mother of three young kids, has the same concerns Green has. She too complains about the heavy "dust" that builds up in her apartment. "I'm always cleaning and dusting," she says.
Teenager Andrew Garcia says he and his parents never think about the invisible particles that work their way into the family home. "All we think about is that it's easier to get on the freeway or to the Metro," says Garcia, who takes the Gold Line to high school.
These residents don't know what the science shows, but L.A.'s elected leaders do.
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.
L.A. officials were so thrilled with the new apartments rising next to freeways that they got into an ugly tussle with Orsini developer Geoff Palmer when he rebuffed City Hall's pressure to make room in his freeway-adjacent Medici building — for low-income families including children.
Meanwhile, on the other side of downtown, the Los Angeles Housing Department provided down payments to buyers to move into Puerta del Sol, a stylish condo complex in the Avenue 26 community where teenager Andrew Garcia breathes in the factorylike emissions and particulates created daily by 285,000 vehicles.
Since then, with the city's enthusiastic backing, including that of Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents Lincoln Heights, the village's politically well-connected developer, Percy Vaz, has marketed the project to families tired of commuting — in effect, targeting parents to live in an area scientists now know is unusually hazardous to their children's health.
"We've known for eight or 10 years there have been these impacts," says Dr. Joe Lyou, executive director of California Environmental Rights Alliance, an environmental justice group. He sees the politicians at City Hall as knowingly endangering children.
In January 2007, USC scientists followed up their widely hailed Children's Health Study with an even more detailed and damning longitudinal study of 3,600 Southern California children — and this time the scientists went down to L.A. City Hall to get the attention of the politicians.
"I woke up one morning and read about [the study] in the newspaper," says Michael Woo, who sits on the Los Angeles planning commission and is dean of Cal Poly's College of Environmental Design. "That's when I started to put two and two together" — to realize that the city's residential zoning policies were making kids sick.
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."
Scientists are especially concerned about nitrogen oxide and "particulate matter," essentially a dust that sometimes can't be seen. Particulates can be metals, gas emissions from cars and trucks, tire rubber and tire-brake dust. When mothers like Fay Green and Aura Sanabria complain about never-ending "dust" that settles inside their apartments in the Puerta del Sol development next to the I-5, they are actually talking about particulate matter.
When kids breathe in this highly toxic particulate, it goes deep into their lungs and can cause long-term health problems.
After listening to researcher Gauderman, several City Council members sounded ready to act.
Council District 12 representative Greig Smith, from the San Fernando Valley, announced that he and Council District 1 representative Ed Reyes, from the city's Eastside, had put forth a motion to study the idea of changing zoning laws to discourage or stop new housing within 500 feet of freeways.
"Maybe we should change the way of doing things around here," Smith told Gauderman and his council colleagues. And City Council District 6 representative Tony Cardenas, also from the San Fernando Valley, declared, "We have a lot of issues in my district we'd like to address, but with science, in my opinion, it's the best way for us to create the best defense in order to defend the community."
Janice Hahn, who represents Council District 15 in San Pedro and is running this year for California's lieutenant governor as an environmental candidate, was even more forceful, announcing, "I think the time for studies is over. I think the time for action is now."
L.A.'s lawmakers talked a big game. But it was nothing more.
Councilman LaBonge, who set up Gauderman's visit to the City Council, concedes today that, after that downtown hearing nearly three years ago, the City Council did nothing. Smith and Reyes' motion to "look into" a 500-foot barrier zone between new homes and freeways never turned into anything substantive; Smith and Reyes recently declined to comment to the Weekly about their long-abandoned motion.
Within months of USC's appeal to the City Council, in fact, one of L.A.'s most brash examples of freeway-abutting housing, the Universal Lofts, rose in Cahuenga Pass at 3450 Cahuenga Blvd., with a banner exhorting Angelenos to both "live" and "work" in the pricey, corrugated metal–and–cinder block buildings.
City zoning approvals allowed the developer to cram his $4,000-per-month, three-bedroom apartments and $1 million condos into a strip of land no more than 20 feet from the 234,000 vehicles that rumble by daily on the Hollywood Freeway.
LaBonge says such housing will continue to rise because "environmental issues need to compete with all other issues," and averting a city fiscal disaster is the only thing on the City Council members' minds.
But critics say that hardly explains the City Council's failure to warn residents or to pursue better planning when the city was flush with funds. Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment, says, "They can't ignore the science. It just can't be shunted off to the side because of the economic crisis."
LaBonge's logic probably wouldn't go over well with an activist parent like Elaine Lyles, whose daughter Itanza developed asthma when she was 10 years old — she's now a sophomore in college. Lyles, a commercial real estate broker, volunteers at a healthy-lungs advocacy organization, and she doesn't want any parent or child to go through the ordeals her family suffered.
For years, Lyles has lived near the 10 freeway in the South Robertson neighborhood; Itanza attended a nearby school. Years ago, upon receiving harrowing calls from school that her young daughter couldn't breathe, Lyles was told by her doctor that the girl had contracted asthma due to "pollutants in the atmosphere." The diagnosis changed Itanza Lyles' life.
"She would have difficulty breathing and I would tell her to calm down and be patient," Elaine Lyles recalls. She sometimes clashed with doctors, who pushed her daughter to scale back her athletic activities in order to improve her health. "But she's full of life and active, and she would get angry because she couldn't live life to the fullest."
Lyles witnessed Itanza suffer horrific asthma attacks, which can kill victims via suffocation, and she remains haunted by the fear that her daughter could die at anytime. A friend at church tragically lost a child during a severe asthma attack, devastating her and shocking the Lyles family. "Your kid can't get air," Lyles says. "You have as many inhalers as possible around, but you never know. As a parent, you're never free of the idea that your child could succumb."
Lyles' oldest daughter doesn't have asthma. The first five years of her life, when her tiny lungs were undergoing a critical stage of development, the Lyles family lived far from a major Los Angeles freeway, in the Hollywood Hills near Griffith Park. "It's probably why she has better lung health," Lyles says. Many scientists today would probably agree.
Percy Vaz, developer of the Lincoln Heights master-planned community where Fay Green and Aura Sanabria clean up thick "dust" in the Tesoro del Valle apartments, opposes a buffer zone between housing and freeway lanes. "I think there are apartment buildings just as susceptible on a major thoroughfare," says Vaz, a prominent local developer and founder of AMCAL Housing, which specializes in for-sale and rental affordable housing. "Would we have a buffer zone on Wilshire Boulevard? On a gut level, 500 feet is far overreaching."
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.
Hricko cited Puerta del Sol, the city-backed condos near the I-5 freeway in Lincoln Heights, and the massive, 1,000-unit, walled-in, University Village directly abutting the 405 freeway in West L.A., as two troubling, real-life examples of housing developments that could make residents sick. "There are a lot of small kids in that housing," Hricko said of University Village.
It's ironic that UCLA, with great ballyhoo, touted the new University Village as affordable college housing in the 1990s and filled it with university students and employees. University Village immediately flanks both sides of the 405 freeway along Sawtelle and Sepulveda boulevards, where 281,000 passing cars and trucks create one of the world's most congested freeways. The roar of traffic necessitated towering sound walls, yet the University Village Web site boasts a playground and "state-of-the-art" child-care center — for 200 children.
The pale-stucco apartment buildings have a hipster feel that has attracted many young medical-school students and other student residents, as well as UCLA employees. They probably think it's a great deal because the rents are set below market rates for the pricey Westside.
According to a UCLA scientist who works with the EPA Southern California Particle Center, no studies of health effects were conducted at University Village. But in 2004 scientists measured the shape and size of the indoor and outdoor ultrafine "nano" particles in the village — which are of concern to scientists because nano particles can act as miniature transporters of toxins into the human respiratory tract.
Just like developer Geoff Palmer's upscale Orsini and Medici residences in L.A.'s "new downtown," and the Avenue 26 project, University Village sits well inside the 500-foot zone scientists say is hazardous to kids — and, they fear, almost no amount of mitigation can change that. Some scientists say that air-filtration systems designed into buildings — and even double-paned and triple-paned windows that are common in the luxury downtown condos next to the Harbor and Hollywood freeways — cannot stop the finest pollutants from finding their way in.
As McConnell told the city's planning commission in 2008, when pollution is tested next to Southern California freeways "you see a huge increase in a number of traffic-related pollutants, and it diminishes quite rapidly when you go back to 300 meters" or 984 feet, about two city blocks. The number of asthma cases among children, McConnell explained, tracks the same way — more sick kids near the freeway, more healthy kids farther away.
That day, the USC professor gave the planning commissioners an unusually firm recommendation: "I think there's strong health-science justification for regulating exposures within 500 feet of roadways with heavy traffic," he said. "I'm not sure that will guarantee the health of our children, but I think that there's very good evidence that within that margin, what might be thought of as a margin of safety, that there are health effects that children are going to be suffering."
Hricko concurred, saying a 500-foot buffer zone was merely a "start" and strongly suggested that real estate developers be required to disclose to prospective buyers and tenants the facts about possible health risks of living right next to a freeway.
By the end of the two-hour City Hall meeting in the late summer of 2008, Michael Woo, the planning commissioner, was shaken to the bone. "My reaction was, 'This is a very serious problem,' that it's worse than I thought," Woo tells L.A. Weekly.
Then–planning commission President Jane Usher ordered Los Angeles City Planning Department staffer Charlie Rausch to return in three months with "next-steps" suggestions from the planning department for the planning commission to consider, and potentially enact.
But by the deadline in November 2008, Rausch's boss, planning chief Gail Goldberg, had failed to produce any "next steps" for the planning commission. Goldberg and Usher, in fact, were busy sparring over City Hall's controversial push to increase housing density in neighborhoods citywide. Goldberg led City Hall's so-called density hawks, and Usher was on the other side, upset that carefully designed Community Plans were too often ignored by Goldberg's planning department — for example, that developers seeking height and size "variances" to override local zoning were regularly given the green light. Usher resigned as planning commission president that December, in a very public parting.
The next month, in January 2009, with the outspoken Usher gone, Goldberg finally delivered her list of freeway-adjacent housing recommendations, which Woo describes as "weak." Goldberg suggested several mitigation ideas she said had been "proven very effective." Among other things, Goldberg said vegetation could be planted between housing and freeways — but some scientists say a thick and deep stand of mature trees would be required.
She suggested the installation of home air-filtration systems and proposed that developers install windows that don't open — both measures that scientists say do not keep fine-particulate matter out of the lungs of children and others because the dust is so pervasive and works its way through a building's tiniest cracks and holes.
The planning department and Goldberg "never really accommodated anything from that [August] meeting" with the scientists, says Angelo Logan, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, who was present and also testified.
Goldberg's halfhearted recommendations have now become a forgotten, and possibly lost, public document.
City Planning Department Deputy Director Vincent Bertoni could not find the year-old "first steps" report for the Weekly after repeated requests in January, according to Bertoni's aide. And although that list of recommendations is clearly a public document, another staffer said it's something that the Los Angeles City planning department would not keep for future reference — a claim that drew an incredulous response from former commissioner Usher.
The Weekly finally obtained a copy of the forgotten Gail Goldberg plan from an environmental activist. It contains no suggestions that families or others be warned before renting or buying housing within a block of an L.A. freeway.
Today, years after scientists warned City Hall leaders, Woo says the planning commission has "no legal tools to prevent a developer from building" family housing right next to a freeway. And environmentalist Logan backs this up, saying that the problems of "planning near freeways has been ignored."
Developers of the "vast majority" of housing in L.A. don't need permission from Villaraigosa's planning commissioners because the developers are not seeking special variances to get around height or density rules, Woo says. As a result, the planning commission has limited chances to challenge freeway-adjacent housing. "We don't have a very good process for at least questioning housing projects near freeways," he says.
One developer who would oppose a freeway buffer zone is Jeremy Byk, vice president of real estate development at Sherman Oaks–based IMT Residential. IMT builds apartments near the 101 and 405 freeways in the San Fernando Valley, with literature promoting "easy freeway access." One luxury project in Encino, with a towering lobby and grape-arbor façade still under construction, will soon offer two- and three-bedroom, mostly market-rate apartments 70 feet from the humming roadbed of the Ventura Freeway.
For IMT, if it can place an apartment building on land directly adjacent to a busy freeway, it can advertise, without paying a penny, to thousands of motorists every day. The complex in Encino, at 5501 Newcastle Ave., had for months a banner festooned across the front reading "Multi-Family Housing," which could be seen by the roughly 291,000 cars and trucks that pass that stretch daily.
"We like to be near as highly trafficked and high-visibility roadways as possible," says Byk. "It drives our sales that way."
He says he hasn't read the USC studies and didn't know about the push by scientists for the 500-foot buffers or a disclosure statement warning parents. He says he's fine with the idea of a health-hazard disclosure statement, but not a buffer zone. "It's ridiculous."
The developer says he is "always concerned" about the health of his tenants. But he is apparently unaware that some scientists don't believe current mitigation measures sufficiently keep out the pervasive toxic particles. He explains, "We're building modern buildings with air filters and dual-paned windows. We mitigate as much as possible."
Byk argues that in the future, vehicles will be far cleaner, and that current levels of lung damage will be reduced. "Emissions from cars and diesel trucks are ever diminishing ... I don't see it as a long-term, significant issue."
But, as Lyou of AQMD points out, California is many years from attaining lower, federally mandated emissions standards — and the volume of traffic is not decreasing but increasing. Even if radically lower tailpipe emissions were achieved in the next decade, Lyou says, cars and trucks will continue to produce vast amonts of hazardous freeway particulate matter from tire rubber and brake dust.
If leading scientists are shocked that their years of effort researching the health of thousands of children in Southern California produced zero action from L.A.'s mayor and 15 council members, many are unwilling to say so — or even to discuss their disappointment — publicly.
Andrea Hricko, director of community outreach at USC's Keck School of Medicine, though not a scientist, is charged with educating elected officials about important studies conducted by scientists like Rob McConnell and Jim Gauderman. But she doesn't play the kind of political hardball needed to get City Council members and the Mayor's Office involved in a controversial issue that would almost certainly infuriate developers — who are big campaign contributors to many City Hall politicians.
"This particular issue about buffer zones and freeways is a difficult one for city policy," Hricko says politely.
Although researcher McConnell strongly and very publicly supported 500-foot buffer zones in 2008, and Hricko backed him up and firmly put forth the idea of a health-hazard disclosure statement, she backtracked recently, telling the Weekly that she and McConnell "haven't advocated for a particular thing." The city of Los Angeles, she now says, has "plans to develop" regulations to address the problem of new housing next to freeways.
In fact, city leaders have no such plan. Officials in the Planning Department can't even find the old ideas from Gail Goldberg's January 2009 "first-steps" list. Comments from Councilman LaBonge, commissioner Woo, and acting deputy mayor Pascual make clear that no elected City Hall politician is taking up the cause.
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Yet Los Angeles City Council members do approve headline-grabbing environmental policies that tend to portray them as benevolent guardians of human health.
The council has banned smoking outdoors in or near restaurant patios, and in 2008, the council placed a controversial temporary ban on new fast-food outlets in a 32-square-mile area of South Los Angeles after Jan Perry said her constituents were eating too much fat. She and other council members used the scientifically dubious argument that fast-food chains were to blame, only to be embarrassed by a Rand Corp. study some months later clearly showing that South Los Angeles actually has fewer fast-food chains than several areas of L.A.
The council is not considering a disclosure ordinance, however, to warn people about the well-researched and proven risks, especially for children, of living right next to a freeway. Joe Lyou finds the situation "outrageous," saying, "To create housing near areas that are dangerous for your health just seems so fundamentally wrong."