May 25, 2001

Barrio Logan Residents Choked Up Over Air Quality Report

By Yvette tenBerge

The audience of Barrio Logan residents becomes hushed as Elena Molina accepts the microphone handed to her by a member of the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) and stands in front of the crowd gathered in the auditorium of Memorial Academy, located at 2850 Logan Avenue.

Elena Molina speaks to the audience at May 8th meeting.

On the evening of Tuesday, May 8th, community residents, the majority of them Spanish-speaking mothers with children in tow, listened closely as Ms. Molina described what daily life has been like for her and her family since her two daughters, ages ten and four, developed severe asthma and allergies. Speaking firmly, she directs her story to the five members of the California Air Resources Board (ARB) who have come to share the preliminary results of an 18-month environmental study of Barrio Logan entitled "Analysis of Air Toxics Data Collected in Barrio Logan, California, from October 1999 through March 2000."

The mothers in the audience nod their heads knowingly as Ms. Molina states her belief that her daughters developed these health conditions not due to heredity, but due to the toxic nature of the environment in which they live.

"Living in this community, I feel oppressed, and I also feel very sad. My husband works very hard, but still the insurance does not cover everything. There are three or four medicines that I have to get for my oldest daughter, Stephanie, and if she is not on the machine, the little one is on the machine," says Ms. Molina, who explains that her daughters have asthma that is so severe that they must spend hours each day breathing through a nebulizer.

Ms. Molina's voice cracks with emotion as she recalls a recent conversation with Stephanie. "My daughter comes to me and says, `Mommy, I'm not a normal girl.' When I ask her why she says this, she tells me, `Because I can't be in normal activities and because people don't like to come near me,'" says Ms. Molina, before pulling a handful of unfilled prescriptions from her purse and waving them in the air. "I want to know who is responsible for these conditions we live in and who is responsible for what has happened to my daughters, so that I can send them these bills."

The crowd of community members and representatives from the Environmental Health Coalition, the California Air Resources Board, the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association and the Industrial Environmental Association applaud Ms. Molina as she returns to her seat. As she puts on the translation earphones provided by the EHC for all present, Bob Fletcher, the Chief of the Planning and Technical Support Division of the ARB, announces the "preliminary, initial results" of the much anticipated study.

As Mr. Fletcher reports that, although the toxic air pollution levels in Barrio Logan are unhealthy, they are no higher than the levels measured in Chula Vista and El Cajon, looks of confusion and disbelief sweep through the crowd. According to these results, the air quality of Barrio Logan is also similar to statewide averages, but generally lower than levels measured in downtown Los Angeles.

San Diego High Schol students participate in an EHC-sponsored, diesel truck counting survey in Barrio Logan.

The Air Resources Board created this assessment with data recorded by an air monitor that they had set up at Memorial Academy for a period of 18 months. Although Mr. Fletcher went on to explain that these results were only from the first six months of data, and that the information taken from this air quality monitor will only be a portion of a much larger study, the audience's reaction is so strong that a member of the EHC has to remind them that Mr. Fletcher and the ARB are "the good guys."

For those familiar with the environmental conditions in the predominantly Hispanic community of Barrio Logan, this reaction should come as no surprise. Recently released EHC figures show that, although the Barrio Logan and Logan Heights area accounts for only three percent of San Diego County's population, 90 percent of emissions for certain compounds occur within its boundaries.

No actual measurements of air quality in Barrio Logan, itself, had been done before the ARB agreed to conduct the air monitoring study at Memorial Academy, despite the fact that the community rests in close proximity to chemically intensive industries that produce, store and emit toxic chemicals and wastes. Some of the prime contributors to the pollution are large industries such as shipyards and the Navy, small businesses such as chrome plating and auto body shops, major thoroughfares such as the I-5 freeway and the Coronado Bridge, and heavy traffic from diesel trucks on main roads such as Harbor and Main streets.

Jerry Martin, a spokesman for the ARB, described the ARB's efforts in Barrio Logan as on-going and "huge" and promised that their commitment to the community was strong. "Traditional monitoring can be compared to flying over an area at 10,000 feet. This may tell you some things about an area, but if you are looking for one house you will not be successful. We wanted to augment that big picture view with a local monitor placed in the area that would hopefully better reflect the air pollution problem that residents experience," says Mr. Martin. He goes on to explain that a 40-person team not only monitored the air for this study, but also conducted a door-to-door survey, a diesel truck counting survey and inspections of over 200 local facilities. He is hopeful that a complete analysis of the air monitor's data will be released by this summer, and that the results of this second level of testing will be available by December. The findings from each of these tests will then be plugged into a computer model which scientists believe will project a more accurate picture of the area's air quality.

"I think that we were a little surprised that we did not find more pollutants, and at higher levels. It is possible that we did not know what to look for, but this is a big learning experience for us, as well," says Mr. Martin, referring to the air quality measurements that were taken for 38 toxic air pollutants, as well as for fine particulate matter. Toxic pollutants are substances known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious side effects, while fine particulate matter are small particles in the air that contribute to breathing problems.

Mr. Martin goes on to admit that scientists have yet to understand the effects of multiple pollutants on the human body. "It is like we are looking for a needle in a haystack, and we might not really understand what that needle looks like. It is very possible that we may not know all of the answers even in December, but we are trying to urge people to wait until we have all of the information before jumping to conclusions about what is, or what is not, problematic."

There is no doubt that the magnitude of the ARB's study is a giant step in the right direction. Ms. Molina may be able to wait another seven months to have her suspicions confirmed, but how many years will she have to wait until the day her daughter, Stephanie, can walk outside of their small home and breathe deeply without having to be hooked up to her nebulizer?

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