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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Why it's dangerous to work in, live near, or fly out of an airport

Jovan Houston with son Tyrone, in their neighborhood under LAX flight path
Mark Schapiro
Jovan Houston with son Tyrone, in their neighborhood under LAX flight path

This is the second story in a series. Listen to the rest at kalw.org/elements.

"They're not building these airports in Brentwood, you know? They're not building them in Pacific Heights."
David Huerta

This story examines air. Our lives depend on it. But how much do we really know about the air around us? It’s where the climate story begins.

It's only in the last several hundred years that we’ve had the slightest sense of what the air actually is. For that we have to thank a four hundred year old science experiment, in Pisa, Italy, that would rock the world.

In 1643, Gasparo Berti, a disciple of Galileo, was studying fluid dynamics — a popular topic since Italian cities like Venice were awash in water. They had to figure out how to move it around. Berti put a thirty-six foot clay pipe, closed at the bottom, into a basin of water. He filled the pipe with water, closed it at the top, and then opened the pipe at the bottom. The water began to flow out into the basin. But when the height of the water column in the pipe fell to thirty-four feet, the water stopped flowing.

They tested and tested again. The water fell again, and again, to the same spot: thirty-four feet. Why? The answer to that question would transform our life on the planet. Berti surmised, correctly, that the water only flowed until the mass of water was matched by the mass of the air. It was the weight of the atmosphere that kept the liquid suspended. Air, they realized to the astonishment of everyone is not empty, it has mass.

It would later be discovered that the air contains many things — including gasses and moisture that are key to the balance of life on Earth. And, of course, it helpfully contains the oxygen that we all breathe.

One of Berti's colleagues would later go on to invent a device that could measure that mass. It’s called the barometer — in Latin, the ‘measurer of weight’.

That instrument would ultimately make possible another great thing that happens in the air — flight. We could be lifted into the air and stay there and fly, like in the 5th Dimension’s classic, "Up, Up and Away." Balloons, of course, led us to airplanes, hundreds of which take off every day from right here in the Bay Area from SFO and Oakland.

But there’s a two way street when it comes to flying. First, all those planes have to get up in the air and stay there — and that means engines, which means greenhouse gasses. And what about all those people responsible for getting airplanes into and out of the air to begin with?

This story was made to be heard. Click the play button above to listen if you are able.

Story transcript:

MARK SCHAPIRO: Last year, I flew to Houston for an environmental conference.

MARK SCHAPIRO: I turned left toward the cockpit, instead of right toward Economy, and approached one of the flight attendants:

“I’m a journalist and wanted to see if could talk to the pilot at the end of this flight.”

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Yeah, okay, let me go see, hold on.

FLIGHT ATTENDANT [returns seconds later]: She’s actually coming back here…


MARK SCHAPIRO: Hello… I’m Mark Schapiro.

PILOT: Nice to meet you. I’m Catherine Axxel, or Cynthia.

MARK SCHAPIRO: So nice to meet the pilot, already feels good.

Wondering if I can have a quick chat with you on the other end —

PILOT: Well, United I know is very eco-friendly, but I’m not an expert ... Why don’t you come up with some questions, send some questions up, and in-flight we’ll peruse some answers, and see if we can figure it out. We’ll need to minimize our time on the ground ‘cause this plane will have to turn around. We won’t have much time on the ground ... Send ‘em up with —

MARK SCHAPIRO: Send ‘em up with the stewardess?

PILOT: Flight attendant, flight attendant. That dates you (laughs). 

MS: Sorry about that. 

PILOT: You’re dating yourself.  So write ‘em up, she’ll get it to us, or he, whichever one, and we’ll do our best.

MARK SCHAPIRO: A couple of minutes after takeoff I wrote some basic questions, like whether pilots keep track of the greenhouse gasses airplane release.

After landing, Captain Axell paused on her way off the plane to respond.

PILOT: We don’t do anything with that. That is way above our pay grade, that’s the problem.

MARK SCHAPIRO: There is no government requirement to report, or even reduce, aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions. But United Airlines claims its going to zero-carbon by 2050, so it voluntarily keeps track. In 2021 the company reported twenty-seven million tonsof greenhouse gas emissions — the equivalent of driving almost six thousand gasoline-powered cars for a year, according to the EPA.

I did check my own contribution to that total at one of those online calculators and discovered that 1,726 pounds of greenhouse gasses had been emitted into the atmosphere on my behalf during our flight to Houston. Multiply that by the thousands of planes flying somewhere on Earth every day and you’ll get a picture of why aviation is such a major contributor of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. At least three percent percent of all global emissions come from planes, and the percent is rising.

The pollution from greenhouse gasses affects everyone. It degrades our common airspace.

MARK SCHAPIRO: There’s another kind of pollution associated with airplanes that is specific – It impacts the people who work in the airport, and people who live nearby–often the very same people. 

An airport is like a huge mechanics shop. Down there on the tarmac, lubricants, grease, gasoline and other toxic substances used to get those planes off the ground and back again can be dangerous to the people who work there.

David Huerta, President of the California Council of the Service Employees International Union, represents a lot of those workers.


DAVID HUERTA: Hi, hey man!

DAVID HUERTA: We did it ... Sorry I’m a little late. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: He dives right in.

DAVID HUERTA: think about being a ramp worker, who are breathing those emissions 24/7. You know, think about that, right? And the impact that has on your on your overall health, and you're doing that job, most likely for the minimum wage, or a living wage, I would say, which is nowhere near in my opinion, what one should earn considering the risk that they're putting through their health?

MARK SCHAPIRO: I’ve met up with David on International Boulevard, in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, which is right underneath many flight paths.

DAVID HUERTA: What you see in the communities and the flight path, is, you know, chronic asthma issues like COPD, you know, respiratory issues, you know, that are concentrated basically, in these communities that surround airports. And, you know, those communities are predominantly black and brown communities. And so, you know, our our thing is to line up with those communities and with the workers to ensure that their interests are part of the equation. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: Which is why the SEIU joined a coalition to oppose the Port Authority’s plan to add another terminal and seventeen new gates to the Oakland International Airport.

ARIELLA GRANETTE: We don't want this campaign to be just about no to airport expansion. We want to be yes to changing mode of travel and low carbon.  

MARK SCHAPIRO: That’s Ariella Granette, an architect, at a meeting of the Stop OAK Expansion coalition last June. The coalition includes more than three dozen community groups. They want to halt the expansion, and redirect the hundreds of millions of dollars it would require to other less polluting forms of transportation.

The struggle now underway in Oakland began 500 miles south, in Los Angeles. From 2020 until last year, the SEIU fought some of the most powerful interests in the city against the plan to add two new terminals to LAX. One of the leaders of that campaign was Jovan Houston.

JOVAN HOUSTON: I’m a customer service agent. I deal with passengers I deal with issues with bags on the ramp. This type of job.

MARK SCHAPIRO: She also lives near the airport, with her 13 year old son, Tyrone.

JOVAN HOUSTON: I live seven minutes away from the airport. Borderline Los Angeles Inglewood area.

MARK SCHAPIRO: So you’re at the airport all the time, either at home or in the airport?

JOVAN HOUSTON: Yeah, see, I mean, constantly daily basis. I see. Planes fly, I'm in direct flight path of my home. Planes fly over my head on a daily.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Her neighborhood just east of LAX faces the highest risk from respiratory disease in the city. A study in Environmental Research Communications concluded that direct emissions from airplanes and airports account for at least 24,000 premature deaths each year—mostly from the inhalation of toxic gases and particulates emitted by airplanes at low altitudes, and the proliferation of toxic substances at the airports.

JOVAN HOUSTON: And the, I guess, you will say the particulates, particulate particles in the air, so that we breathe on a daily basis and we breathe in our lungs and causes of causes us like, harm. causes respiratory problems. Me myself, I have COPD, it's kind of a person that would probably smoke. I don't smoke. I never have. My son has asthma. And this is the problem that we deal with. Because of the air quality. 

A public health study at USC found that ultra-fine particulates fall from airplanes within a two-mile radius from LAX at ten times the rate further away from the airport. Neighborhoods that are often home to members of the SEIU, which has concluded that people of color are twice as likely to live within three miles of an airport than the White population.

MARK SCHAPIRO: The SEIU lost the battle against the LAX expansion, but the union did win an important concession from the city: Funding for a study analyzing the pollutants that people like Jovan Houston and others who live near the airport in LA are exposed to. Amazingly that’s never been done before — though there is already a lot of evidence about the hazards of life working in or near an airport…many of which Jovan experiences daily.

JOVAN HOUSTON: Well, you go onto the tarmac to get on your flight. Yeah, there's a sign. And it says, Beware, these fumes can be cancerous. People don't realize that sign is there.

MARK SCHAPIRO: That’s the Prop 65 sign, that’s supposed to inform us if there are carcinogens or other toxins in the vicinity.

The sign? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, but that sign is not on our employee door saying, hey, when you open this door, you're gonna be exposed to cancer like particles, you're going to be breathing that in on a daily basis for eight hours. They don't warn us about it. Just get out. Go work. Go get a bag. Stuff like that.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Now, Jovan Houston is on the board of the SEIU, and comes to Oakland to help lead the fight against the airport’s expansion here. She’s sharing her experiences with her fellow union members, at SEIU headquarters in Alameda.

[In the background: Si se puede, si se puede!]

 JOVAN HOUSTON: Basically, we're going through the same struggle. We're  getting polluted on a daily basis, and they want to expand just as  well, as lax wants to expand.

JOVAN HOUSTON: Most of SEIU members are black and brown members, and we don't have a voice, usually.

MARK SCHAPIRO: During one of her visits to the SEIU’s headquarters in Alameda, I asked Jovan Houston about the union’s alliance with environmentalists on a project that could mean new jobs for its members.

MARK SCHAPIRO: As a longtime union member … It's somewhat unusual for a union to oppose a project that could theoretically lead to more jobs. How do you feel about that trade off?

JOVAN HOUSTON: Because it's not just about more jobs and more money, it's actually about our health and security here, in life. If we only cared about just money, we don't care about our children's after that, like that's kind of you know, that's sad. 

JOVAN HOUSTON: It’s  time to wake up because a lot of … people don’t know … they're breathing toxic fumes every day, and they don't know they're breathing. formaldehyde and benzene and all these other chemicals. And they’re wondering…why black and brown people have higher chances of having asthma and in health problems and respiratory problems because this is the air we breathe here at home.

MARK SCHAPIRO: The SEIU’s David Huerta says Jovan’s participation has been key to both educating workers about the hazards they face and strengthening the union’s determination to make environmental equity a key demand.

DAVID HUERTA: I mean, it was amazing what we learned from her, as somebody who lives in community and actually works with the airport. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: The campaign in Oakland is part of a nationwide Airport Campaign by the union to improve conditions for thousands of airport workers in at least 16 major airports across the country.

DAVID HUERTA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, and, you know, the patterns are the same in most of our cities. Right. And then they're not, they're not building these airports in Brentwood. You know, they're not building them with Pacific Heights, right? They were dropped into certain areas, that, you know, that around them, there's freight, there's movement of logistics, and the right next to our communities.

MARK SCHAPIRO: David says the union hopes that any deal with the airport will be transformational.

DAVID HUERTA: Let’s use our power here to have transformative impact not only on the workers that service the Oakland airport, but also the communities they live in, by extension, their neighbour, the neighbours, who are who are going to be impacted by this work.

MARK SCHAPIRO: The Oakland Port Authority is supposed to be issuing an Environmental Impact Statement soon.When it’s released, the union and the coalition will be ready to examine what it means for the air that everyone in the airport and nearby will be breathing.

The Elements Series was financially supported by Invoking the Pause foundation and by the journalism non-profit, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project

This story aired in the October 3, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

Editor's Note: An early version of this story called Ariella Granette a lawyer instead of an architect.

Mark Schapiro is an award-winning investigative journalist and author specializing in the environment. He is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism