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Mapping West Oakland pollution, block by block

Laura Wenus
A truck moves along a truck route in West Oakland

West Oakland has had an air pollution problem for years, and it’s taken a toll on residents. Emergency room visits for asthma are highly concentrated in West Oakland and Emeryville, but they drop off dramatically when you get to other parts of Oakland.

A new study is bringing this variation into focus. Researchers mounted air quality monitors on Google Street View cars, and sampled the air every hundred feet in West Oakland. The resulting dots create a heat map that shows pollutants can be up to six times as concentrated from one block to the next.

Living with air pollution

I meet Roosevelt King out on his front steps on Linden Street in West Oakland, reading the paper. His house stands out on the block because it’s nearly covered in plants. While they’re pretty, the plants are mainly there to help control his asthma.

“I try to keep a lot of greenery around me, shrubbery around me, to help me breathe better, even in my house, a lot of plants,” King tells me.

Asthma, lung disease and bronchitis are common in this neighborhood. Within a few blocks of King’s house, I ran into three other people with respiratory illnesses.

Air pollution is highly concentrated in this area, but it varies a lot — even within the neighborhood. A new study from the Environmental Defense Fund, Google Street View, and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project shows a big difference in pollution levels from King’s block to the next.

“What we were surprised to see is...there are areas where one end of a city block can be six times as polluted as the other end,” says Josh Apte, an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas, Austin and one of the researchers working on the project.

A new tool

Aside from revealing patterns in the level of certain pollutants, the study also served as a test for this relatively new method of measuring air pollution.

“We designed the study basically to understand how much data you’d need to collect in order to do this elsewhere,” Apte says. “We sampled much more, many more times than we needed to. This approach actually really works and it’s actually much easier. [You] probably only need to make 10 or 20 measurements over a year to start representing reasonably well what people are breathing on a city block.”

Because the study uses mobile monitors on cars, it also shows what traditional stationary air quality monitors can’t.

“We have been doing our air monitoring based on a facet called ground-truthing, where people are,” says Margaret Gordon, cofounder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.

She and her organization have been tracking this for years.

“So finally I guess technology has caught up to be able to do ground surface measurement,” she says. “Through the wind currents, where the pollution is, the trucks are on the ground. The trucks are not in the air – trucks are on the ground.”

The study shows diesel pollution is heaviest along highways and roads. For example, researchers found that pollution near the Bay Bridge on-ramp was particularly bad. They think it’s because vehicles are speeding up there, spewing diesel particles into the air.

Possibly the worst measurements on the map came up at Third and Adeline streets. This is one of routes into the Port of Oakland. Gordon says the only reason so many trucks are coming to West Oakland is the port.

“Trucks only come here because of the Port of Oakland. There’s no other industrial based use for trucks to be here outside of the Port of Oakland,” Gordon says. “We don’t have Nabisco cracker company here, we don’t have working farms here... we don’t have any manufacturing here. So why would trucks be here?”

The Port has been working on reducing emissions significantly. Internal studies show that diesel particulate from trucks operating at the port dropped 95 percent over ten years.

It now has higher standards for truck engines, requires appointments for cargo pickups, and is planning new warehouses closer to docks.

Those statistics look at what happens on port properties. Outside that boundary, truck traffic is still a major polluter.

Mystery spots

But in some areas mapped by the mobile monitors, it’s a complete mystery where the pollution is coming from.

Remember Roosevelt King, on his steps with all the greenery? Well, he lives on a street that the new study actually indicates is pretty clean. Except for one mystery spot in the middle of the block.

I asked Mr. King and a few other neighbors about this, and nobody was really sure of the answer.

A few people speculated it might be related to ongoing construction on one of the houses. Another person suggested it might be trucks idling on a nearby median.

I didn’t find the answer. But it illustrates how different one pocket of air can be from the next.

“We suspected that different parts of the neighborhood had different air quality because of the activities that take place outside your front door,” says Brian Beveridge, cofounder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.

He said exhaust isn’t seen as dangerous the same way other factors like lead are.

“There’s nothing in the paperwork when you buy your condo next to the freeway that says that you are now exposing your children to high levels of diesel particulate, which is known to cause cancer, asthma, hypertension, brain tumors,” Beveridge says. “No one tells you that.”

Beveridge says this data helps make the connection between exhaust and real health effects.

“So we begin to draw a line from the big source to the small source to the localized exposure, to actually being able to say that you have these chemicals in your blood that demonstrate your exposure,” he explains. “And then if you actually have exposure-related illness, it’s almost a smoking gun at that point, right?”

That smoking gun illustrates that pollution is affecting people, now. And you don’t necessarily have to live next to a refinery to feel it. In fact, one block could make all the difference.

Researchers and local environmental agencies are working on identifying other areas where pollution could be mapped next, though they haven’t identified specific areas yet.