Oakland: Tracking Air Quality Block By Block

The Port of Oakland's shipping container cranes silhouetted by sunset at golden hour with the full San Francisco skyline in the background.

By Ngoc Nguyen

A local environmental advocacy group last week launched a first-of-its kind monitoring project, installing air quality sensors in the densely packed neighborhoods near this city’s port to give the people who live and work there on-the-ground readings of pollutants that can seriously injure their health.

The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, in partnership with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, installed the first 25 of the 100 sensors they plan to place in the area, whose residents have long been burdened by diesel pollution from ships, trains and heavy-duty trucks coming in and out of the port. The devices will be stationed in the residents’ yards, schools, senior centers and businesses.

Diesel pollution accounts for about 70 percent of the known cancer risk related to air toxins in California, according to the state Air Resources Board. The health effects of diesel also include chronic heart and lung diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as decreased lung function in children. These, in turn, can lead to ER visits, hospitalizations and premature deaths.

Oakland’s asthma rate in children (19 percent) and adults (16 percent) is on par with Alameda County, where the city is located. But, asthma rates are higher for children in West Oakland, near the port, where the number of kids diagnosed with the disease is nearly 21 percent, according to data from the California Health Interview Survey (AskCHIS, 2014). Statewide, 15 percent of children and 14 percent of adults have had an asthma diagnosis.

The rate of asthma-related emergency room visits is nearly twice as high in Oakland as in Alameda County, according to the county health department.

California has reduced diesel pollution in a number of ways, including programs to retrofit trucks with equipment that makes them run more cleanly and a gradual phaseout of older trucks. Since 1990, diesel pollution in the state has decreased by 68 percent, according to the Air Resources Board.

Government and business investments to clean up trains, ships and trucks operating at the Port of Oakland have dramatically reduced diesel particle emissions there by 75 percent since 2015, according to a report released last year by the port.

However, the passage of a sweeping gas tax bill by state lawmakers last Thursday to pay for road repairs contains a provision that could make it harder for the state to regulate emissions from the trucking industry.

Brian Beveridge, co-founder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, says diesel pollution from port activities must be further reduced.

Last week, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project filed a federal complaint, alleging that by forging ahead with a planned port expansion, the city and Port of Oakland are ignoring the disproportionate health impacts on West Oakland residents. Half of the residents are African-American, and the neighborhood has one of the highest poverty rates in the county.

Beveridge says people in West Oakland are still concerned about the dangers of dirty air, and they think more detailed monitoring is needed to clearly understand the quality of the air they are breathing.

Read the full Q&A at California Healthline.



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