This month’s Environmental Health Perspectives features an informative but disturbing article by Andrea Hricko entitled  “Global Trade Comes Home”.  It describes the adverse impact on communities of the “goods movement” system, where imports to the U.S.—electronics, food, toys, furniture— make their way from waterfront ports to trains and trucks, and into warehouses and to our neighborhood stores.  Hricko, an associate professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, with first-hand experience working with families who live near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, paints the picture of residents who:

“are exposed to diesel exhaust and other truck emissions, noise from truck-congested roads, bright lights from round-the-clock operations, and other potential health threats.  Transportation experts refer to these impacts as ‘externalities’ of transport, but to community residents they can directly harm the quality of daily life.”

Did you know that 40% of all imports to the U.S. come through these two side-by-side ports.  40%!!  (A new study by Energy Futures Inc. of the nation’s top 10 ports*, which handle 80% of all U.S. imports, calls air pollution, increased trade an dense population by these massive facilities a ‘perfect storm’ of threats to public health.)  If I hadn’t seen for them for myself, I couldn’t imagine the zillions of metal shipping containers stacked up and stretching for miles in and around the Los Angeles port.  Nearby, I watched as freight trains chugged along carrying double-stacked freight containers, and the train tracks were bumped up next to a freeway with trucks carrying more huge metal cargo boxes.  All of this “goods movement”—considered by some the “economic engine” of California—was occurring in front of a neighorhood and soccer field.  I can empathize with residents who feel like the situation is out of control.  Let’s not forget that workers at the ports, like the short-haul truck drivers, face their own adverse health risks.

Hricko, who also directs community outreach and education at an NIEHS-funded center at USC, describes some of the public health research examining the adverse health effects of transportation-related air pollution, federal and California regulatory iniatives to address them, and set-backs to their implementation.  She mentions scores of groups and coalitions concerned about the ever-expanding “goods movement” system, including the Environmental Health Coalition, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative, the Trade, Health & Environment Impact Project, among many others.  She concludes the article describing the first ever gathering in North America of groups affected by ports and goods movement.  The “Moving Forward” conference allowed participants to share community concerns about health impacts, learn about current health-impacts research and planned goods movement expansion projects. 

Hricko also cites rising concerns about imported products, consumers and their spending habits, quoting Rev. Peter Laarman of Progressive Christians Uniting:

“Americans think of themselves as consumers rather than as citizens.  We don’t care, for example, if Chinese workers toil in factories with no safety regulations, or if residents in communities near our ports have to breathe dirtier air.  What we care about is ‘how much do I have to pay for an iPod?’ and ‘where can I buy this doll for under ten dollars?'”

Hricko aptly points out that our concerns about globalization seem to be fleeting.  We focus for a few days on tainted pet food and lead-laced toys, but once the stories leave the headlines, we’re back to buying as usual.  She opens our eyes to other serious pitfalls of cheap imports, the communities which are being suffocated by “transportation externalities.”

*The top 10 U.S. ports which handle 80% of U.S. imports are located in Los Angeles, CA; Long Beach, CA; New York/New Jersey; Oakland, CA; Savannah, GA; Tacoma, WA; Hampton Road, VA; Seattle, WA; Charleston, SC; and Houston, TX.

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Celeste Monforton, MPH is with the Dept of Environmental & Occupational Health in the School of Public Health at George Washington University.  Celeste worked with Andrea Hricko in 1996-1997 when Andrea was the deputy assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health (MSHA.)  Several months ago Andrea Hricko took Celeste Monforton on a tour of the Los Angeles harbor communities so that Monforton could see first-hand the impacts faced by community groups.

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