As commuters in other large cities rely more and more on public transit, Los Angeles still boasts the worst traffic in the U.S. The epic congestion isn’t just frustrating for drivers — it’s also putting communities close to the highway at higher risk for serious health problems.
Next year, for the first time, regulators from the Environmental Protection Agency will start monitoring air quality near major Southern California freeways in order to determine how harmful pollution levels are for the roughly 1 million people living within 300 feet of these roads.
Independent studies found that pollution concentrations around LA commuter corridors are as much as 10 times higher than anywhere else in the city. Pollutants emitted from cars are linked to respiratory illnesses like asthma and bronchitis, as well as heart disease and lung cancer. Californians are certainly feeling the effects; between 2005 and 2007, pollution-related illnesses in California cost state, federal and private health insurers more than $193 million.
The new EPA rule will place air quality monitors within 160 feet of major roads in 100 large metropolitan areas. Nationally, 10 percent of Americans — 35 million people — live within 300 feet of a four-lane highway. Yet government regulators do not even know if pollution levels in neighborhoods near major roads are within safe levels. Ultrafine particulates flowing out of car exhaust pipes have gone unregulated by the EPA, even though the agency estimates they kill 80,000 to 100,000 Americans per year.
Since real estate closest to major commuter corridors is considered less desirable, these communities tend to be poorer and populated by minorities. Boyle Heights, one of LA’s poorest neighborhoods with 90 percent Latino residents, is surrounded by freeways and rail yards constantly spewing particulate matter. The neighborhood was part of a larger study last year concluding that Latinos, Asians, and African Americans in urban areas suffer the most exposure to particularly toxic pollutants, like the nitrates in exhaust fumes.
As the state with the worst air, California has aggressively enacted strict legislation to curb auto emissions over the past decade. Still, about 70 percent of LA commuters drive alone in their own cars every day, spending an average of 59 hours sitting in traffic last year. In the first part of 2013, congestion has already increased 6 percent.