As a pediatrician in Southern California, I have learned a lot about pollution up close and know just how damaging breathing polluted air can be for a child. This is because children’s lungs are still developing, so they are especially at risk from air pollution. Throughout Southern California, the burden of pollution on children and families near congested freight operations is a serious health issue.

As the global pandemic set in and Americans increasingly turned to online shopping for far more needs, the pressure on the health of low-income communities and communities of color nearest the ports, warehouse, railyards and truck corridors also increased, even before the current backlog. People living nearest the ports and other arms of the international freight system have a front-row seat to the pollution sources that put Los Angeles at the top (or bottom) of the rankings as the most ozone-polluted metropolitan area in America. Diesel-powered trucks, trains, cargo-handling equipment and the ships calling on our ports (and the 100 ships anchored off of Southern California as of November 1) spew tremendous amounts of toxic air into nearby communities and across the region. Further inland, massive warehouses continue to be built and collect thousands of diesel truck trips daily ushering goods on across the United States.

Afif El-Hasan, MD, FAAP,
Pediatrician, Kaiser Permanente, California
Afif El-Hasan, MD, FAAP, Pediatrician, Kaiser Permanente, California

A lot of media coverage seems to focus on the impacts that the port backlog will have on holiday shopping, but very little is noted about the gift that clean air would truly be in communities near the ports. With so much attention paid to the current congestion at ports, it is important that we remember the price that nearby communities are paying – in harm to their health. The children in our most vulnerable and impacted communities deserve better, and to breathe air that won’t make them sick. We must call for solutions to dramatically improve the air that our children breathe as aggressively as we are moving to speed backed-up containers through portside communities.

How Backlog Problems Affect Us All

This latest congestion is effectively eliminating the benefits of clean air rules that local communities depend on for healthier air. The California Air Resources Board’s latest estimates are that the increased activity and backlog at Southern California ports has grown to be equivalent to nearly 100,000 diesel trucks’ worth of carcinogenic particle pollution. It is devastating to realize the magnitude of these numbers.

Diesel engines represent the largest share of California’s worst-in-the-nation air pollution. These engines add cancer-causing diesel particles, fine particulate matter and the ingredients for our ozone challenges. Heavy-duty trucks alone contribute more than half of all smog-forming emissions and more than half of all on-road particle pollution. These pollutants cause cancer, asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes and thousands of premature deaths annually in California.

Make no mistake, the congestion at the ports is ramping up our pollution burden and we need this logjam to break. But our public health crisis will still be waiting when the congestion clears unless our local, state and federal agencies commit to attacking pollution from the freight sector in Southern California with the same coordinated approach being outlined to attack the congestion.

The South Coast air district has taken a big first step by requiring warehouses to cut emissions – ports must be held to the same standards. California must move quickly on a suite of diesel regulations ranging from a “smog check” for diesel trucks to requiring all-electric trucks at ports, railyards and warehousing facilities across the state. The federal government must enact its planned Cleaner Trucks Initiative to cut smog-forming emissions and accelerate pathways to more zero-emission technologies. Federal actions on locomotives and other off-road equipment are also critical to clean air success in California communities.

We have a long way to go to improve the health of every resident by cutting harmful pollution as rapidly as possible – and by keeping national attention on this public health crisis well after the last waiting ship picks up anchor.

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