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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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When People and Industry Live Side-by-Side: Health Impacts of PM Pollution

By Jessica Hendricks

In response to: Particulate Matter: Widespread and Deadly

Particulate matter (PM) pollution can have serious health impacts, especially when found in high levels in residential areas.  This occurs in both urban and rural areas, due to proximity to industrial facilities and highways, and can result in an increased risk of serious health effects including but not limited to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. 

Global Community Monitor (GCM) is an environmental justice organization that trains and supports communities in the use of environmental monitoring tools to understand the impacts of industrial pollution on their health and environment.  We have worked with several communities that are on the ‘fenceline’ of heavy industry and mobile sources that contribute to elevated levels of PM pollution.  The independent air testing program, known as the ‘Bucket Brigade,’ empowers pollution-affected residents to take scientifically credible samples using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved methods and laboratories.  The “Bucket” is similar to the Summa Canister, yet much more community friendly and lower in cost.  Community members can take samples when and where they want to with the “Bucket,” then send the sample bag containing the air sample to a lab in Southern California for analysis.  This gives communities living near refineries, chemical plants or other toxics-emitting sources a chance to even the playing field with indifferent regulators and polluting companies.

In West Oakland, CA, a predominantly low-income community of color, heavy industry and neighborhoods practically overlap.  The result is an area of mixed-use zoning where homes, child care centers and schools are next door to large toxic polluters. There is no breathing space or buffer zone to protect residents from industrial PM emissions.  Asthma rates in the area exceed county averages and statewide rates.

Within a residential area of West Oakland, GCM trained community residents to monitor air emissions from a scrap metal recycling facility which accepts scrap metal and melts down the aluminum to be repurposed. Considered a ‘green’ business, it is currently under-regulated by the local air district.  PM emissions from this facility have gone off-site and the PM pollution has been found within the community, including the local high school.  Results from the air monitoring done in the community indicate elevated levels lead and other toxic metals including mercury, manganese, nickel and arsenic.  The most likely health impacts of exposure to these pollutants are an increased risk of kidney disease, neurological damage, cancer and asthma.

Similarly, in Claymont, DE, GCM worked with a community living next to a steel plant that also recycles scrap metal.  Community monitoring in the area showed high levels of PM pollution, including particularly toxic heavy metals like lead and mercury.  According to University of Southern California professor Constantinos Sioutas who analyzed the data, “long-term exposure to fine particulate matter in residential location near the Claymont Steel industrial [site] would be considered unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.” Long-term exposure to high levels of lead and manganese can cause health problems including nervous system disorders, development disabilities, blood diseases and other ailments, according to the EPA.

The problem of PM pollution is not limited to urban areas with industrial facilities.  From March 2011 through March 2012, GCM partnered with the “TriCounty Watchdogs” of rural Lebec, CA to do citizen-based air monitoring near California freeway Interstate 5.  The group is based in a community where I-5 runs through a narrow mountain pass which at times traps PM pollution from nearby cities and the Central Valley in California.  This problem is further exacerbated by heavy truck traffic along the major California freeway.  State data indicate that nearly 70,000 vehicle pass by Lebec on the I-5 each day, and approximately 18,000 of those are large trucks with diesel-fueled engines.

Not surprisingly given the heavy diesel traffic, asthma rates are high at the middle school located only a few hundred feet from the freeway.  Children describe their “lungs hurting” after soccer games on bad air days. An analysis of the project’s air sampling data indicates that the Lebec community, including a school with 240 students, is impacted by diesel particulate pollution at levels that pose a risk of cardiovascular and respiratory effects, including increased incidence of hospitalizations and premature death.

The levels of air pollution monitored in Lebec are comparable to those of a major city, yet Lebec and nearby Frazier Park are places many families settle to escape the compromised air quality of the region’s major cities.  This in turn contributes to the air quality problem in Lebec, as many residents commute up to an hour each day for work.

These cases do not have easy solutions.  However, we do know that people need buffer zones -- a space between heavy industry or mobile sources of pollution and population centers like schools, homes and parks.  This buffer zone would greatly reduce the amount of PM pollution residents are exposed to and in turn reduce the risks of serious health effects.

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