NRDC OnEarth
NRDC   OnEarth
The Earth’s Best Defense

Current Issue
About OnEarth

Cover, Current Issue
Letter from the Editor
Contact OnEarth
Full Table of Contents
Back Issues
Media Kit

NRDC Membership

A NEW WEBSITE! blogs, more multimedia, and award-winning journalism come join the conversation at

Feature Story
Dark Side of the New Economy
Page 2

A conceit of the New Economy is that it promises freedom from the smokestacks and sweatshops of the past two centuries. In some swaths of formerly industrial North America, factories have been replaced by Wal-Marts and FedEx vans. But this is only a local illusion, a magic trick of trade and geography, obscuring the underlying fact that the New Economy not only rests on the grimy, polluting old one but propagates, multiplies, and feeds it, spreading it around the world like a pandemic.

The off-shoring of manufacturing has moved some of the smokestacks away, but it has stoked countless new ones in the breakneck industrialization and urbanization of the developing world. And all that stuff made abroad has to be brought back to us, on demand, satisfying our ever-greater desire for speed and low cost. We click off our wishes on Web sites, setting in motion diesel engines by the tens of thousands: trucks, loaders, cranes, and locomotives, armadas of little smokestacks toiling to deliver us the goods. Ninety percent of international trade still moves by ship, as it has since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Ships ply the high seas between the developing and developed worlds, slipping easily through the spaces of oversight, rules, and responsibility. They typically burn bunker fuel, a form of low-grade diesel left over from the refining of gasoline and other diesels -- literally the bottom of the barrel, with sulfur content 3,000 times higher than the fuel used in new diesel trucks. One large vessel burning bunker fuel generally emits as much exhaust as 12,000 cars.

At the San Pedro Bay ports, a ship can be unloaded and turned around in three or four days, all the while idling its auxiliary engines (called hoteling) to generate power and run equipment. Multiply this by 5,800 ships per year, then add the myriad tugs, barges, and smaller service and passenger vessels that throng the harbors, and you can begin to see the emissions volume from the boats alone. At the dock the containers are unloaded by a boy's fever-dream menagerie of high-rise cranes and four-story forklifts (called top-handlers), then loaded onto trucks or flatcars, shunted into long trains by switching engines, and hauled off by locomotives -- all of them diesel powered.

The twin ports now emit more pollution than the top 300 industrial sources and refineries in the Los Angeles Basin combined -- in one of the leading power-generating and oil-refining regions of the country. The lion's share comes from ships and boats, which release many times more pollution than all the power plants in Southern California put together.

The harborside communities of San Pedro, Wilmington, and West Long Beach are as variegated in ethnicity and national origin as any in intensely polyglot Los Angeles County. The crude machinery of twenty-first-century world trade presses up against people's lives like a dirty storm surge. Jesse N. Marquez, a third-generation Wilmington native and an environmental activist, took me for a tour. Just blocks south of his house, a yellow bungalow on a quiet street, phalanxes of giant cranes and passing ships loom. At the edges of his and other residential neighborhoods, warehouses, refineries, petroleum storage tanks, and rail yards back up to houses and apartment buildings.

He told me that, in addition to the smoke, the smog, and the smell, noise and glare from huge overhead lights flood the area 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In unkempt storage yards, walls of empty containers, stacked up to four high, tower over backyards. Locomotives pass by pulling mile-long trains or idle, often for hours. And trucks are everywhere, some of the 15,000 short-haul rigs, nearly all of them decades old and heavily polluting, that pass by each day on choked freeways and access roads, or invade the side streets looking for a faster way onto the jammed 710, blocking traffic, getting stuck in narrow lanes, idling in front of the liquor store while their drivers look for a snack or a bathroom.

Marquez called it the diesel death zone. Driving behind the trucks, passing the refineries, you see and feel the smog and smoke clouds, you breathe sudden, inexplicable miasmas of chemical stench that vanish just as suddenly, your eyes sting and water, your head pings with sharp pains. In days bygone, harbors smelled of rotting fish, creosoted pilings, and the thousand dank or exotic odors of the goods that moved through them: tar, lumber, wheat, or spices. Now the only smells come from petroleum products and their combustion. "We've grown up with it to the point where we think it's normal," Marquez said. "But it's not normal."

The difference between diesel and ordinary exhaust is the soot -- inky, greasy, visible particles emitted by typical diesel engines. Researchers have only recently learned that it is what we don't see in these clouds that hurts us most: the fine particulates that make up 94 percent of diesel emissions, which are capable of penetrating deep into lung tissue and causing genetic and cellular damage. In addition to particulate matter, diesel exhaust contains volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde, as well as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, precursors to smog. It also contains arsenic, cadmium, dioxin, and mercury, among 40 cancer-causing substances.

Diesel exhaust is responsible for 71 percent of the cancer risk from air pollution in the state of California. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach account for more than 25 percent of the cancer-causing diesel exhaust in the region, and emissions have gone up at least 20 percent since 2001. Cancer risk maps show the results vividly: The susceptibility to cancer from air pollution is evident throughout the Los Angeles Basin, but it concentrates alarmingly around the ports, along freeways heavily used by container trucks, and in the inland warehouse and rail yard districts that are the trucks' most frequent destinations. The California Air Resources Board released a report in 2006 that calculated the annual toll of premature deaths attributable to the movement of goods. The number was 2,400 statewide, or six deaths per day.

Damage from diesel exhaust, especially to the lungs, starts early in life. The Children's Health Study, conducted by the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), followed 1,800 children in 12 Southern California communities for eight years beginning in 1993. It found that exposure to vehicle exhaust increases the risk for asthma and retards lung development in children, perhaps permanently. The study also found that in health, as in real estate, location matters: The worst outcomes came in areas next to ports, freeways, and rail yards. Teenagers in polluted communities were five times as likely to have clinically low lung function as those in low-pollution areas.

"As we see more roads, traffic, and trucks, we're seeing measurable changes in respiratory and cardiovascular function, both in children and in people we hadn't thought of as susceptible before," explained Ed Avol, professor of clinical medicine at USC's Keck School and one of the principal investigators of the study.

Laura Rodriguez, a native of Mexico and mother of five who lives in North Long Beach, told me: "En Long Beach, no se salva" -- no one is safe. She and her family have lived in several different locations here for seven years, some closer to the ports or I-710, some farther away. Now they live in a two-story house on a tree-shaded street whose quiet belies the hazards that stalk the community. Of all her children -- Carla, 15; Juliana, 13; Zachary, 10; Jorge, 7; and Angela, 4 -- only Zach has not been diagnosed with asthma. Carla, who was found to have asthma two years ago, often has attacks in the mornings. At Long Beach Polytechnic High School, she plays water polo in the indoor pool and runs track. She complains to her mother, "I'm tired. I can't run like I used to."

Rodriguez volunteers with the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma, a grassroots community group that educates families about the health threats they face. She helps measure particulate levels and counts traffic on roads adjacent to local schools as part of USC's ongoing study. She attends hearings before government agencies and speaks out. Above all, she keeps her house immaculately clean and tries to keep her children away from obvious sources of diesel soot. Still, she said wearily, "You can't create a bubble. No matter where we go there are trucks and there's pollution."

As the Rodriguez family knows firsthand, the trade-offs of the New Economy are felt more painfully in some neighborhoods than in others. Ed Avol put it this way: "Everybody wants a better job and a plasma TV, but almost nobody thinks about the ramifications."

Print this article

Click to launch photo essay

Page:  1  2  3  4

OnEarth. Spring 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council