LIFE IN FREE­WAY DAN­GER ZONES

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia con­tin­ues a surge of res­i­den­tial build­ing in high­traf­fic pol­lu­tion zones, even though liv­ing there makes peo­ple sick

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tony Bar­boza and Jon Sch­leuss

For more than a decade, Cal­i­for­nia air qual­ity of­fi­cials have warned against build­ing homes within 500 feet of free­ways.

And with good rea­son: Peo­ple there suf­fer higher rates of asthma, heart at­tacks, strokes, lung can­cer and pre-term births. Re­cent re­search has added more health risks to the list, in­clud­ing child­hood obe­sity, autism and de­men­tia.

Yet South­ern Cal­i­for­nia civic of­fi­cials have flouted those warn­ings, al­low­ing a surge in home build­ing near traf­fic pol­lu­tion, ac­cord­ing to a Los An­ge­les Times anal­y­sis of U.S. Cen­sus data, build­ing per­mits and other gov­ern­ment records.

In Los An­ge­les alone, of­fi­cials have ap­proved thou­sands of new homes within 1,000 feet of a free­way — even as they ad­vised de­vel­op­ers that this dis­tance poses health con­cerns.

The city is­sued build­ing per­mits for 4,300 homes near free­ways in 2015 — more than in any year over the last decade — and signed off on an ad­di­tional 3,000 units last year.

Pub­lic funds, in­clud­ing mil­lions of dol­lars from Cal­i­for­nia’s cap-and-trade pro­gram to cut green­house gas emis­sions, are go­ing to de­vel­op­ers to build new homes in free­way pol­lu­tion hot spots.

The pop­u­la­tion near Los An­ge­les free­ways is grow­ing faster than else­where in the city as plan­ners push de­vel­op­ers to con­cen­trate new hous­ing near trans­porta­tion hubs, con­vinced that in­creas­ing ur­ban den­sity will help meet state tar­gets for green­house gas re­duc­tions.

More than 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple al­ready live in high-pol­lu­tion zones within 500 feet of a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia free­way, with more mov­ing in ev­ery day.

Be­tween 2000 and 2010 — the most re­cent pe­riod avail­able — the pop­u­la­tion within 500 feet of a Los An­ge­les free­way grew 3.9%, com­pared with a rate of 2.6% city­wide.

Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil­man José Huizar, who lives sev­eral hun­dred feet from In­ter­state 5, said free­way pol­lu­tion is such an ur­gent and com­plex prob­lem that he wants the city to es­tab­lish buf­fer zones. He called for a “com­pre­hen­sive, city­wide study of de­vel­op­ment near free­ways that would an­a­lyze all im­pacts of lim­it­ing de­vel­op­ment around free­ways.”

Other elected of­fi­cials and busi­ness groups ar­gue that Los An­ge­les is so thor­oughly criss­crossed by free­ways that re­strict­ing growth near them is im­prac­ti­cal and would ham­per ef­forts to ease a se­vere hous­ing short­age. In some cases, city of­fi­cials are paving the way by re­zon­ing in­dus­trial land along free­ways and other trans­porta­tion cor­ri­dors.

In an in­ter­view at a re­cent ground­break­ing for a free­way-ad­ja­cent apart­ment project, Los An­ge­les Mayor Eric Garcetti said that he grew up near the 101 and 405 free­ways and that many in his fam­ily had can­cer.

But he said he op­poses any re­stric­tions on how many homes can be built near free­ways and thinks that im­prove­ments in air fil­tra­tion, build­ing de­sign and tailpipe emis­sions are bet­ter ways to re­duce risks to res­i­dents.

“I take this stuff very se­ri­ously, but I also know that in look­ing for hous­ing we have a very con­stricted city,” he said.

Garcetti spokesman Carl Marziali noted that a pro­hi­bi­tion on build­ing within 1,000 feet of free­ways, for ex­am­ple, would cover more than 10% of land cur­rently zoned for res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion in the city, from West­wood to Boyle Heights and San Pe­dro to Sher­man Oaks. But pro­po­nents of stricter plan­ning, in­clud­ing sup­port­ers of Mea­sure S, a pro­posal on the March 7 bal­lot that would place new re­stric­tions on de­vel­op­ment, have crit­i­cized city of­fi­cials for ap­prov­ing what they term “black lung lofts.”

Low rent and a lo­ca­tion near shops and restau­rants are what brought Jeremiah Caleb to an apart­ment on Beloit Av­enue, where a sound wall is all that separates the 405 free­way from sleek new apart­ments and lofts ad­ver­tis­ing “good liv­ing.”

But life got worse for Jeremiah and his wife An­gel soon af­ter mov­ing into that onebed­room on the West­side of Los An­ge­les.

The cou­ple be­gan to strug­gle with bouts of cough­ing, sneez­ing and headaches. They kept the win­dows shut, yet a grimy, black film set­tled reg­u­larly over the fur­ni­ture, coun­ters and even their skin — a never-end­ing re­minder of the ve­hi­cle ex­haust and soot they were breath­ing just 100 feet from 14 lanes of traf­fic.

“We were con­stantly sick,” said Caleb, an ac­tor in his 30s. The cou­ple wor­ried enough about dirty air that they put off hav­ing chil­dren. “We were des­per­ate to leave, but we felt stuck. We just couldn’t af­ford it.”

Busi­ness groups have con­sis­tently op­posed any sug­ges­tion of re­strict­ing de­vel­op­ment near heavy traf­fic.

“Free­ways are part of Los An­ge­les’ fab­ric, and pro­hibit­ing hous­ing by them is un­re­al­is­tic,” said Carol Schatz, pres­i­dent of the Down­town Cen­ter Busi­ness Im­prove­ment District. She ar­gues that such re­stric­tions would worsen the hous­ing cri­sis and se­verely limit the abil­ity to build hous­ing near mass tran­sit.

The South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Assn. of Govern­ments, the re­gional plan­ning agency for Los An­ge­les, Ven­tura, Or­ange, River­side, San Bernardino and Im­pe­rial coun­ties, has pro­jected that the pop­u­la­tion within 500 feet of a free­way will in­crease by a quar­ter of a mil­lion peo­ple by 2035.

Rob McCon­nell, a pro­fes­sor of pre­ven­tive medicine at USC who stud­ies road­way pol­lu­tion, is one of a num­ber of health re­searchers who has ad­vised city of­fi­cials not to al­low new hous­ing that close to free­ways.

“I tell them you’re go­ing to make a lot of peo­ple sick,” McCon­nell said.

Sci­en­tists have long known that pol­luted air cuts lives short.

But pin­point­ing the harm­ful agents in traf­fic pol­lu­tion is dif­fi­cult be­cause it’s a stew of in­gre­di­ents in­clud­ing toxic com­bus­tion gases, mi­cro­scopic soot par­ti­cles, com­pounds from worn tires and dust from ve­hi­cle brake pads. Re­cent re­search has nar­rowed in on one com­po­nent of spe­cial con­cern: ul­tra-fine par­ti­cles, pol­lu­tants in freshly emit­ted ve­hi­cle ex­haust that can be five to 10 times higher near traf­fic.

The in­vis­i­ble, chem­i­calladen specks are less than one-thou­sandth the width of a hu­man hair — so tiny they are hard to cap­ture with pol­lu­tion con­trols or fil­ters. Sci­en­tists sus­pect ul­tra-fine par­ti­cles are able to pass through the lungs and into the blood­stream, where they may harm the heart, brain and other or­gans. Yet they re­main un­reg­u­lated by state and fed­eral au­thor­i­ties.

That emerg­ing science has raised con­cern that decades of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions, aimed at curb­ing smog that builds up across vast ur­ban ar­eas, are not suf­fi­ciently tai­lored to the more lo­cal­ized prob­lem of road­way pol­lu­tion.

Two years ago, state en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cials con­cluded that diesel soot and other car­cino­gens in ve­hi­cle ex­haust posed nearly three times the can­cer risk pre­vi­ously thought.

In a long-term study, USC re­searchers have for more than two decades mea­sured the lung ca­pac­ity of thou­sands of school chil­dren across South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. They found that chil­dren grow­ing up near ma­jor road­ways have higher rates of asthma and other res­pi­ra­tory ill­nesses, in­clud­ing deficits in lung func­tion that can be per­ma­nent and lead to a life­time of health prob­lems.

Even in com­mu­ni­ties with cleaner air, such as Santa Maria near the Santa Bar­bara County coast, chil­dren liv­ing near traf­fic had the same lung func­tion loss as those in River­side and other smoggy in­land ar­eas, the sci­en­tists found.

An­thony Moretti, chair­man of pe­di­atrics at White Memo­rial Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Boyle Heights, said chil­dren who live close to free­ways are among those who most fre­quently land in the emer­gency room strug­gling to breathe and in need of treat­ment for asthma and other res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases.

“These kids will come in four, five, six times over a six­month pe­riod, and clearly their en­vi­ron­ment is a fac­tor,” he said. “I feel for these fam­i­lies be­cause they suf­fer an un­due bur­den of ill­ness sim­ply be­cause of where they live.”

Pub­lic health of­fi­cials have long warned that traf­fic pol­lu­tion can drift well over 1,000 feet from traf­fic — and more re­cent re­search sug­gests that it may waft more than a mile.

Yet it took law­suits and a na­tion­wide man­date from the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency to force South­ern Cal­i­for­nia air qual­ity of­fi­cials to be­gin reg­u­larly mea­sur­ing pol­lu­tion near South­ern Cal­i­for­nia free­ways in 2014.

The first read­ings con­firmed that peo­ple near free­ways breathed higher lev­els of the ex­haust gases ni­tro­gen diox­ide and car­bon monox­ide. Then, in 2015, the South Coast Air Qual­ity Man­age­ment District de­tected the re­gion’s high­est con­cen­tra­tions of fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter at a new mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion 30 feet from the 60 Free­way in On­tario. The find­ings added com­pelling ev­i­dence that traf­fic emis­sions pile on top of re­gional smog, hit­ting peo­ple near free­ways with a dou­ble dose of pol­lu­tion.

To learn more about the prob­lem, The Times con­ducted air qual­ity test­ing at sites where new hous­ing is planned near Los An­ge­les free­ways.

In Au­gust and Septem­ber of 2015, re­porters col­lected air sam­ples at sev­eral lo­ca­tions us­ing por­ta­ble pol­lu­tion sen­sors that de­tect ul­tra-fine par­ti­cles, the mi­cro­scopic pol­lu­tants in ve­hi­cle ex­haust. One set of air sam­ples was taken next to stretches of the 110 and 5 free­ways, and another set was taken 1,500 to 1,800 feet from the free­ways.

Pol­lu­tion read­ings near the free­ways were three to four times higher than in neigh­bor­hoods at a dis­tance from traf­fic. Diesel trucks pro­duced the most no­tice­able pol­lu­tion, cough­ing out foul plumes of ex­haust and soot that could be seen and smelled as pol­lu­tion read­ings jumped.

Sci­en­tists at USC and the South Coast air district said the read­ings were con­sis­tent with their mea­sure­ments near free­ways.

One of the lo­ca­tions where re­porters de­tected high pol­lu­tion lev­els was next to a va­cant lot along the 110 Free­way in South Los An­ge­les where two apart­ment build­ings for low-in­come res­i­dents are be­ing built.

The $55-mil­lion Meta Hous­ing Corp. project, which will bring 160 new hous­ing units to the busy traf­fic cor­ri­dor, is partly funded with money from pol­lu­tion per­mits sold un­der the state’s cap-and-trade pro­gram, among other state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies.

Among the most vis­i­ble and con­tro­ver­sial projects that have raised traf­fic pol­lu­tion con­cerns in Los An­ge­les are de­vel­oper Ge­of­frey H. Palmer’s mas­sive Ital­ianate

Los An­ge­les Times

HOMES FOR THOU­SANDS have been built along down­town Los An­ge­les free­ways and more projects are on the way. De­spite more than a decade of health warn­ings, city of­fi­cials con­tinue to ap­prove large apart­ment com­plexes in high-pol­lu­tion zones like the 110-101 in­ter­change. Sources: Google Earth, Mapzen, OpenStreetMap, L.A. County Asses­sor, gh­palmer.com, Los An­ge­les De­part­ment of City Plan­ning

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

EVERETT SMITH, a renter at the Orsini apart­ments, looks out from his bal­cony at rush hour traf­fic on the 101 and 110 free­way in­ter­change in L.A.

CARS SPEED along the 110 free­way in down­town Los An­ge­les, past the Medi

MA­SON MILLER watches out of his bed­room win­dow that over­looks the north­bound lanes of the 101 Free­way in Hollywood. Miller says he and his room­mates keep the win­dows shut.

TRAF­FIC MOVES past the Sage apart­ments un­der con­struc­tion next to the 91 Free­way in Cer­ri­tos. More than 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple live within 500 feet of a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia free­way.

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