Air pollutants contribute to Barrio Logan asthma rates
Barrio Logan's neighborhood sign. Photo by Torrey Bailey

Air pollutants contribute to Barrio Logan asthma rates

By Torrey Bailey SDSU student

Asthma rates in Barrio Logan are among the highest in California, and although this condition cannot be attributed  to a single factor, data shows that air pollution affects health.

A report released in 2014 by the California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) shows asthma-related hospital visits in the 92113 ZIP code fell within the highest 10th percentile in the state. On average, 80 of every 10,000 residents visited an emergency center for asthma between 2007 and 2009.

“While the causes of asthma are poorly understood,” the report said, “it is well established that exposure to traffic and outdoor air pollutants, including particulate matter, ozone, and diesel exhaust, can trigger asthma attacks.”

The statistics worry the Barrio Logan community.

The high asthma rates, number of hospitalizations, and the air quality make up the majority of residents’ complaints, said Councilman David Alvarez, who represents the district that includes Barrio Logan.

Children’s health is of particular concern. People under the age of 18 are more vulnerable to air pollutants and, therefore, asthma. Nearly 40 percent of Barrio Logan’s population is under 18, according to the city’s community report.

Children are more susceptible to air pollutants because their bodies are still developing. Lungs do not reach maximum strength until adulthood, and exposure to pollutants may keep them from ever reaching their full capacity, according to the American Lung Association.

Exposure to air pollutants

The OEHHA’s report identified a New York study that diagnosed children who are exposed to heavy truck traffic experience increased asthmatic symptoms due to diesel pollutants.

OEHHA’s study reported that Barrio Logan has higher amounts of diesel particulate matter than 80 percent of California cities.

Researchers consider diesel emissions’ ultrafine particle size to be more harmful than other particulate matter because it can carry carcinogens deep into the lungs.

Alvarez, who was born and raised in Barrio Logan, is no stranger to the neighborhood’s environmental situation.

“My entire childhood I lived next to a chrome plate shop,” he said. “Definitely the emissions from the exhaust landed into my front yard and my home. That was a reason I still suffer from asthma.”

Although his symptoms have subsided during adulthood, they reappear when he gets sick, Alvarez said.

“It was the poor air quality and the lack of anyone doing anything about it.” Alvarez said. “Our voice wasn’t being heard as residents. Even to this day, we’re trying to invest to get people to be active, ensure trucks don’t go through the community and things like that to help our community and so future generations of kids so not have to suffer what I had to as a child.”

Lifestyle Consequences

Although air pollution correlates to asthmatic conditions, it is not the only contributing factor.

“There is an interaction between a child’s genes and the environment they live in,” said Dr. Martin T. Stein, a pediatrics professor at the University of California, San Diego. “So the food they’re eating, the air they’re breathing, or a lack of playgrounds or dangerous traffic, the environment is important in the growth and development of children.”

Socioeconomic status plays a role in people’s accessibility to healthy food and environments. According to its community profile, 41 percent of Barrio Logan residents live below the poverty line.

Additionally, low-income rates also influence emergency room visit frequency, according to the OEHHA.

“They don’t have very good continuity of care or any health care, and they end up using the ER,” said Dr. Michael J. Welch, a co-director at Allergy & Asthma Medical Group & Research Center in San Diego. “The ER conveys that they are being hospitalized, and they end up using that as their way to treat their asthma rather than going to the doctor on a regular basis for prevention therapy.”

When a person with asthma is treated regularly, the severity of symptoms and the need to visit the hospital decreases, said Welch.

Taking action

San Diego residents recently voted against legislative action to reduce air pollution in Barrio Logan.

In June 2014, propositions B and C sought to separate residential and industrial zones in a new Barrio Logan community plan. However, more than half of San Diegans voted against these propositions.

Alvarez was a supporter. With a community planning group he helped establish, he still hopes to better Barrio Logan’s future.

“Our community planning group will serve as a watchdog going forward to make sure that anybody who wants to develop anything or build up a business are in locations that are more appropriate so that there isn’t a conflict between the two uses,” he said.

Click here to see more from “What’s in the Air”

Torrey Bailey was enrolled in San Diego State’s “What’s in the Air” sensor journalism class in Spring 2015.

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