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What Do You Get When You Cross
Diesel Trucks and Day Care Centers?

Transportation of goods across the region is a major contributor to the most harmful of these pollutants. It's time to look at both the cause and the solutions.

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Health Impact of Diesel Transportation

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Diesel Pollution in Southern California is responsible for 70% of the estimated carcinogenic risk from air toxins (according to South Coast Air Quality District.

Transportation of goods across the region is a major contributor to the most harmful of these pollutants. And that's the business connection to day care centers...and our children.

The Need for Air Pollution Reduction

Recent air pollution and epidemiological findings suggest that harmful vehicle-related pollutants and their associated adverse health effects concentrate within a couple hundred meters of heavily traveled freeways and thoroughfares. We’re just beginning to understand the health and economic costs of such localized effects, and we still know little about who is exposed to these pollutants.

The Location

Recent field studies indicate that vehicle-related pollutants such as ultrafine particles, black carbon, and carbon monoxide are highly concentrated immediately downwind from major roadways. Their relative concentration declines by as much as sixty percent at 100 meters downwind, drops to near background levels at about 200 meters, and are indistinguishable from background ambient concentrations at 300 meters. Among vehicle-related pollutants, ultrafine particles are especially worrisome since they are capable of penetrating cell walls and the blood-brain barrier and can be easily absorbed into vital organs.

Diesel exhaust particulate is also a great concern as evidence is rapidly accumulating that subjects who live near roadways with a high volume of diesel vehicles are more likely to suffer from respiratory ailments, childhood cancer, brain cancer, leukemia and higher mortality rates than people who live more than 300 meters away from such roadways. Vehicle-related air pollutants have also been associated with respiratory illness, impaired lung function, and increased infant mortality. A Los Angeles County study found that pregnant women who reside within 750 feet of heavily traveled roads face a ten to twenty percent higher risk of early birth and low-birth-weight babies.

The Business Connection with Diesel Emissions

Recent and projected expansions of goods movement corridors in Southern California raise many environmental justice concerns, including the potential localized effect of diesel pollution. Heavy-duty diesel trucks emit high levels of ultrafine and fine particles, and a complex mixture of gaseous air pollutants, 41 of which are listed by the State of California as toxic air contaminants.

Transportation Corridors Produce Higher Levels of Harmful Air Pollutants

Transportation corridors with heavy-duty diesel traffic such as the 710 freeway in Los Angeles tend to have higher concentrations of these harmful pollutants than a freeway with less diesel traffic such as the 405.

The California Department of Transportation says that in 2002 the segment of the 710 from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles through the low-income, minority communities of Lynwood, South Gate, and Bell into East Los Angeles carried over 32,000 trucks per day, comprising up to fifteen percent of all the traffic on this segment. Much of this truck traffic carries goods throughout the entire region.

According to the South Coast Air Quality District,
diesel particulate emissions are responsible
for about seventy percent of the estimated
carcinogenic risk from air toxins.

Diesel Emission Reduction Solutions

Given the pervasiveness and necessity of urban roadways, multiple strategies will be required to address the adverse impacts of vehicle-related pollutants, especially since technological solutions for future gains in emission reduction appear limited in the near future. While gasoline vehicles have become much cleaner, on- and off-road heavy-duty diesel engines are just now being required to meet stricter emissions standards.

On-road diesel engine models of 2007 or newer sold in the United States will now be equipped with advanced pollution control technology such as particulate filters and required to use newly available ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (ULSD).

Retrofit Solutions for Diesel Vehicles

Similar requirements will be phased in over the next decade for new non-road diesel engines such as in construction, agricultural, and industrial equipment. The California Air Resources Board (ARB) suggests these new on-road diesel standards could result in a ninety percent reduction of NOX emissions and a ninety percent reduction in particulate matter emissions compared to 2004 diesel standards. Diesel engines are very durable, however, and can last for thirty years, which limits the near-term effectiveness of the new standards. Even though retrofitting older diesels with new emissions controls and using ULSD could help curb emissions, implementing a large-scale retrofit program is extremely challenging. The San Pedro Bay Ports recently proposed incentive programs to promote the replacement and retrofit of older heavy-duty diesels and to make alternate fuels and clean diesel more widely available.

Children’s Facility Location Solutions

Another strategy restricts “sensitive land uses” away from major roadways. In 2003, the California legislature responded to the evidence of high concentrations of harmful pollutants near major roadways by prohibiting the construction of public schools within 500 feet of busy roadways. Ten percent of California public schools and nineteen percent of the state’s licensed childcare centers are located within 500 feet of a major roadway. As many as 25 percent of childcare centers are located within 650 feet of a major roadway.

The California Air Resources Board recently developed recommendations for restricting residences, schools, day-care centers, playgrounds, and medical facilities near heavily traveled roadways and other air pollution sources. The board’s objective is to reduce cumulative exposure from multiple sources of pollution—not just major roadways, but also sources such as distribution centers, rail yards, ports, refineries, and chrome platers.

Strategic site design could help reduce the exposure of vulnerable populations to vehicle pollutants. For instance, playgrounds and outdoor activities at schools could be located on the side of the property farthest from major roadways.

Outdoor and vigorous activities could be restricted during high traffic periods.

Smart Growth Limit Solutions

Community Smart Growth plans to reduce vehicle-miles traveled through mixed-use development could reduce both near-roadway exposures and regional smog. Such development, however, should be evaluated carefully to avoid high local air pollution concentrations from multiple commercial, industrial, or transportation infrastructure.

Transportation Project Site Solutions

With the recent adoption of new rules by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Highway Administration, regional agencies will soon be required to demonstrate that transportation projects involving significant increases in diesel traffic (such as road expansions and new bus terminals) do not create hazardous hotspots of particulate matter.


Down to the Meter: Localized Vehicle Pollution Matters, by Douglas Houston (PhD candidate in urban planning at the UCLA; Jun Wu assistant professor of public health at UC-Irvine ( Paul Ong professor of urban planning – UCLA; and Arthur Winer professor of environmental health sciences, UCLA.


California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. Draft Air Quality and Land Use Handbook: A Community Health Perspective:

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| air quality | transportation | health |


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