Eden Flynn works as a Graduate Student Researcher for the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and is the Curriculum Coordinator and Trainer for the Center’s ALERT project in the Health DATA Program. In the article, she discusses the importance of partnerships between researchers, community members and policy makers and how those collaborations can make an impact in both research and policy discussions on air quality and environmental health.
Joaquin Marin walks over a freeway bridge in his neighborhood in East Los Angeles and snaps photos of cars clogged in rush hour traffic and diesel trucks spewing black exhaust.
Marin and other Boyle Heights residents are gathering evidence of vehicles and other sources that spew massive amounts of air pollution daily into the mostly low-income, immigrant community.
Trained by staff with the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s ALERT project, the residents are using a research method known as “groundtruthing,” which gathers data from the “ground,” or in this case, straight from the community.
“Many of my family members and friends have asthma and other respiratory problems, and it’s especially common among children and elderly in our community,” Marin said. Such problems are now of no surprise to him given the massive amounts of traffic that engulf Boyle Heights.
For nearly two years, UCLA’s ALERT project, which is run in collaboration with the university’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences, has worked with Boyle Heights and Long Beach community groups to educate residents on air pollution’s health impacts and how they can document the problem and help make the case for cleaner air and better policy.
The ALERT project also conducted joint trainings for community members and academic researchers in order to build their capacity to collaborate on improving air quality and health.
ALERT is also funding research projects such as the one in Boyle Heights. Its community partners are East Los Angeles Community Corporation and The Children’s Clinic in Long Beach. Boyle Heights and Long Beach are two Los Angeles neighborhoods that are heavily impacted by the transportation of goods and products from the ports to retailers via highways and railways.
Marin’s neighborhood of Boyle Heights is bordered by the Interstate 5 and the 60 freeways, and the Interstate 10 and the 710 freeways also are close by. The 710 freeway is a major route for big-rigs and diesel trucks carrying goods to and from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.
Together, the ports are the largest port complex in the country and the biggest source of air pollution in Southern California. Long Beach residents endure air pollution from a local oil refineries as well as a network of busy freeways and streets on which thousands of big rigs and diesel trucks transport consumer goods on a daily basis.
Air pollution from those busy ports has led to elevated rates of asthma among children living near the ports. Air pollution, particularly from carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulate matter — a cancer-causing pollutant emitted by diesel engines and industry prevalent around local oil refineries and the ports — have been found to cause lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, premature births, low-birth weights, and respiratory problems.
According to an American Lung Association report, the Long Beach area is the fourth worst in the nation when it comes to exposure to particulate matter, the most dangerous type of air pollution.
Gisele Fong Ph.D., Executive Director of EndOil /Communities for Clean Ports, a participant of the ALERT project, leads an ALERT funded research project in Long Beach focused on air pollution and the Cambodian community.
“We know that low-income, communities of color are hit hardest by environmental pollution, as these communities live closer to freeways, go to school in neighborhoods that are often highly industrialized and polluted,” Fong said. “But we need to find out more about the localized pollution sources, health impacts, and actual mapping of these sources.”
ALERT has helped bridge that gap – it has held various trainings in Long Beach and East L.A. at which UCLA researchers discuss their data collection methods and the latest research on air pollution. Through this process, Researchers also learn about the “human face” behind the science from the perspective of the people who are most closely impacted by air pollution.
For example, Ying-Ying Meng, a Senior Research Scientist with the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the principal investigator for epidemiologic studies on asthma and air pollution now collaborates with ELACC’s air pollution research in Boyle Heights. “As a researcher I learned so much about how the issues that I have researched affect people’s lives, and the real life issues of air pollution,” Meng says.
ALERT is an important effort towards bringing community voice supported by academic research into the policy debate on air pollution and health. The problem of air pollution and its health consequences calls for a concerted effort involving as many informed voices as possible. Partnerships between researchers, community members and policy makers can help make the case for more rigorous emission controls on ships, trucks, trains and the port and rail facilities that move our goods across Los Angeles and beyond.
Community-researcher collaboration such as these, are an important example of how groups can collaborate in their efforts to place public health at the center of research, while including community voice in the research and policy discussions on air quality and environmental health.
ALERT project (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, Health DATA Program)
East Los Angeles Community Corporation
The Children’s Clinic in Long Beach
EndOil /Communities for Clean Ports
State of the Air 2010 (American Lung Association)