By Ngoc Nguyen, Kaiser Health News
James Lockett sits on his bed and opens the drawer of his nightstand, revealing a stash of asthma inhalers: purple disc-shaped ones he uses twice a day to manage his symptoms and others for full-blown attacks.
Lockett, 70, says he never leaves home without an emergency inhaler.
His senior housing complex in East Oakland is less than a mile from Interstate 880, a major corridor for freight trucks shuttling to and from the Port of Oakland. On the way to factories and warehouses, the trucks often roll through streets near homes, schools and libraries.
The diesel-fueled big rigs are a major source of air pollution, spewing soot and other pollutants that can cause or aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.
Just walking while talking on his cellphone can leave him short of breath, Lockett said.
“The [asthma] triggers here, without my medications, it would be terrible.”
California has cleaned up its diesel fleet significantly in recent years by phasing out older trucks and requiring operators to install the latest pollution-control equipment. But local air district officials and environmental advocates say more needs to be done and that the emissions goal should be close to zero.
Efforts to get there are stalled, they say, in part because of a provision in the $52 billion road improvement law signed in April by Gov. Jerry Brown. That provision exempts most diesel trucks on the road from future emissions reduction requirements for many years.
Regulators and environmentalists warn that, without further reductions in emissions, many residents who live near major truck routes or the port remain at high risk of cancer, heart problems, asthma and other lung diseases, especially children and seniors.
Asthma is a critical problem in Oakland for these two groups. Among other indicators, the rate of emergency room visits for asthma among seniors (age 65 and older) in East Oakland, where Lockett lives, is nearly three times higher than it is statewide, and the rate in West Oakland is nearly two times higher, according to state and county data.
Similarly, children in these neighborhoods go to the emergency room for asthma at more than double the rate of their peers statewide, according to 2016 data. In the heart of West Oakland, near the port, nearly 21 percent of children have been diagnosed with asthma, according to 2014 data from the California Health Interview Survey. That’s well above the statewide average of 15 percent.
A mobile asthma clinic called a Breathmobile regularly parks at elementary schools near the port, and Darryl Carter makes good use of it for son Austin, 13. During a recent visit, he recalled a terrifying attack eight years ago that sent Austin to the hospital. Since then, the boy’s been back to the hospital three or four times — not ideal, but the Breathmobile visits have made a difference.
Asthma has multiple causes and triggers, including poor housing conditions, a family history of the disease, certain weather conditions and exposure to cigarette smoke. Poverty, lack of access to health care and little knowledge of preventive care all can contribute to high rates of emergency visits, said Dr. Washington Burns, administrative director of the Breathmobile in Northern California.
However, “there’s often more asthma around corridors with trucks and cars than in areas where there aren’t,” Washington said.
Diesel trucks account for 2 percent of vehicles but emit 30 percent of key smog-forming nitrogen oxides and 65 percent of the soot attributable to motor vehicles, according to the state Air Resources Board (ARB).
In 2015, the Oakland City Council began diverting trucks from streets with homes, schools or senior centers. But some community activists say enforcement of these local ordinances has not been strong enough.
The provision in the state’s new law exempts all but the oldest or highest-mileage trucks from any new emission reduction rules the state might impose. The exemption lasts 18 years from the time they meet current emissions standards or until they have traveled 800,000 miles.
It’s unclear exactly how the exemption will affect local air districts and ports that want to cut emissions further. Environmentalists say these agencies may face resistance and risk being sued by the trucking industry if they forge ahead with more aggressive plans.
Read Part 2 here.