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Polluted Preschools: 169 LA childcare centers are too close to freeways

Culver City writer Tracey Moore loved everything about her daughter’s daycare. It was close to her family’s house, included some Spanish immersion, and her young child was smitten with the staff.

So when the owner informed parents she was moving, there was unanimous consensus among families that they would all follow her.

But when Moore saw the new daycare location, she was devastated: “It’s a side street that dead ends right at the freeway,” she recalled, “and the preschool is about a stone’s throw [away].”

Every day, more than 300,000 cars and trucks rumble through that section of the 405, according to CalTrans data for 2014 – making it one of the most highly-trafficked spots in Los Angeles. Moore didn’t know that specific statistic, but she could see the traffic and was concerned about what she called the “invisible ribbon of particles” drifting off the freeway from cars and trucks directly into the yard of the day care.

“What I saw immediately was the threat of this invisible pollution, especially for a kid under five who is going to be playing outside,” Moore said. “She’s here eight hours a day and probably would be outside easily for six of those hours.”

So Moore and her husband choose to pull their daughter out of the daycare they loved. And it broke her heart to do it.

Moore was right to be worried. For more than a decade, researchers have found that traffic pollution is bad for kids’ health. In 2003, California state lawmakers prohibited new elementary and secondary schools from being built within 500 feet of highly trafficked freeways – the distance researchers say is the most dangerous for kids’ developing bodies – unless a school district determines that student’s health won’t be significantly affected, or determine the benefits of a location outweigh the risks.

The bill’s intent was unequivocal: "To protect school children from the health risks posed by pollution from heavy freeway traffic and other non-stationary sources in the same way that they are protected from industrial pollution.”

At the time, lawmakers worried that “over 150 schools [statewide] are already estimated to be within 500 feet of extremely high traffic roadways,” according to the language of the bill.

But the law doesn’t cover the majority of Los Angeles County’s early child care centers. A KPCC investigation identified 169 childcare centers in Los Angeles county alone located within that 500-foot danger zone. Altogether, they’re licensed to serve almost 10,000 children.

Former California state senator Martha Escutia, who carried the bill that clamped down on new elementary and secondary schools from opening close to freeways, said preschools on public elementary school campuses would obviously be included – but they make up only a small portion of early education centers.

Many more are Head Start preschools, non-profit providers and individuals licensed to provide care from their own homes. Escutia said they should all be subject to the law.

“If I were in Sacramento today I would absolutely introduce a new bill to cover all preschools,” she said. “Public, nonprofit and private. Period.”

Some early education advocates said privately that holding preschools to the same standards could cause some to close and hinder the chances that new preschools would open. Low-income children are most likely to be missing out on early education because of the current shortage of seats available in Los Angeles County, and closing preschools in low-income communities could exacerbate those gaps. They fear that solving one problem would cause another. 

But Escutia is not swayed.

“I know where I stand,” she said. “I will always take the stand of public health.”

Traffic pollution makes kids sick

The health effects of traffic pollution on children have been well documented. Researchers at the University of Southern California completed two major studies, in 2004 and 2007, that both showed reduced lung function in children aged ten to 18 who attend school within 500 feet of roadways that have over 100,000 cars per day in urban areas.

Of greatest concern are the fine particles, sometimes called particulate matter, that are released into the air from vehicle engines, said W. James Gauderman, professor in the University of Southern California's Keck school of medicine and lead researcher on the studies.

“We’re talking about long term risks of asthma, long term risks of reduced lung development in children,” Gauderman told the L.A. City Council in 2007.

It’s not just kids’ lungs that are affected. In a study published last year, researchers found damage to the white matter of the brains of babies whose mothers were exposed to air pollution during pregnancy.

“The bigger these abnormalities in tissue in the white matter on the left side of the brain, the more these children had problems with attention deficit disorder, slowed thinking and thought processes – and they also had much higher levels of aggression and rule breaking behavior,” said Bradley Peterson, who runs the Institute of the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital L.A. and who was one of the researchers.

Peterson found brain tissue abnormalities continued to develop in children who were exposed to air pollution in the first five years of their lives.

An oil refinery and highway are visible over the fence of a Long Beach child care center. KPCC reporters Deepa Fernandes and Sarah Monte investigate the effect of air pollution on early childhood development by taking air quality readings outside of child care centers located in Los Angeles County.
Blaine Ohigashi for KPCC
An oil refinery and highway are visible over the fence of a Long Beach child care center. KPCC reporters Deepa Fernandes and Sarah Monte investigate the effect of air pollution on early childhood development by taking air quality readings outside of child care centers located in Los Angeles County.

Children who are exposed to higher levels of air pollution near birth or in their first year also had twice the risk to have an autism spectrum disorder than children with less exposure to air pollutants, according to research conducted by Heather Volk, a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Volk and USC clinical professor Ed Avol have applied for grants that would allow them to study the health impacts on children under five of going to preschool close to traffic.

“There have been some interesting recent publications from Europe that show that exposure to higher levels of air pollution particularly near schools does appear to affect children’s cognitive development,” Volk said.

Disparate impact

In 2003, the California Department of Health found in a study that overall, children of color were three times more likely than their white peers to live in highly-trafficked areas, said Greg Oliva, assistant deputy director of the state’s Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

“Based on this analysis, low income and children of color have higher potential exposure to vehicle emissions,” Oliva said.

In fact, the language of the 2003 bill that banned new schools from opening within 500 feet of a freeway explicitly named the “disproportionate number of economically disadvantaged pupils” who were at “an increased risk of developing bronchitis from elevated levels of several pollutants associated with traffic.”

Mitigating bad air

The 500 feet length that researchers have identified as too close to freeways is about one city block, and it’s close enough that the freeway is often both visible and highly audible.

Blaine Ohigashi for KPCC

Some of those preschools use simple strategies to try to mitigate the air pollution, but preschool operators may be unaware that those strategies aren’t enough to prevent serious health risks.

The Pasadena Day Nursery, for example, is located close to intersections of the 210 and the 134 freeways. At the Lake Street exit off the 210, traffic levels topped 300,000 vehicles per day in 2014 – three times the traffic level that the legislature deemed high enough to be concerning when it passed the law about school proximity to busy roadways.

But the preschool is hidden by thick shrubbery and greenery and there’s even a redwood tree in the parking lot.

Janet Romero, who runs the preschool, said that air pollution isn’t something that she often thinks about, nor is it a question she said she hears from prospective parents who take tours.

“I grew up at a school which was directly across from the freeway, so I think for me living in L.A.," she said. "It’s just part of our everyday life."

Trees do help somewhat with the fine particle pollution from traffic, said Avol, the USC researcher.

“Tree cover, foliage, fences, shrubbery, buildings, will all affect to some extent the flow patterns of air and in some ways provide a surface for the particles to adhere to and deposit on,” he said. But many ultra-fine particles still get through, he said.

Another mitigation strategy is to keep children inside when the air quality seems particularly bad.

Several preschool directors interviewed by KPCC said they frequently close the outdoor play yards when there are air quality warnings.

An oil refinery and highway are visible over the fence of a Long Beach child care center. KPCC reporters Deepa Fernandes and Sarah Monte investigate the effect of air pollution on early childhood development by taking air quality readings outside of child care centers located in Los Angeles County.
Blaine Ohigashi for KPCC
An oil refinery and highway are visible over the fence of a Long Beach child care center. KPCC reporters Deepa Fernandes and Sarah Monte investigate the effect of air pollution on early childhood development by taking air quality readings outside of child care centers located in Los Angeles County.

Still, fine particles can find their way indoors unless they run a high quality air filtration system.

“We did some scientific and engineering work to identify the best filtration system that can actually filter out the worst of the diesel and worst of the particles before it gets inside the classroom,” said Philip Fine, deputy executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

His agency runs a program to help schools in bad pollution zones install filters in classrooms. But these systems are expensive. Recently, an elementary school in Boyle Heights received a grant to cover the over $400,000 it cost to buy and install the air filters. Six preschools located on L.A. Unified campuses have benefited from air filtration systems, said Sam Atwood, spokesperson for the SCAQMD.

But, Atwood added, the SCAQMD has “no additional funding currently that we are aware of to install classroom filters.”

Without a grant, this kind of price point is out of reach for many early education providers.

Vicky Santos, the vice president of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF), which runs 42 childcare across Southern California, said that some of their sites have portable air filters, which are less effective than those the SCAQMD uses.

“They are very expensive,” Santos said, “and that would be an economic issue for MAOF to be able to put the huge air filtration in all of our sites.”

Obstacles to moving

Blaine Ohigashi for KPCC

Economics are also behind some preschool operators’ reluctance to endorse a ban on preschool centers close to freeways.

MAOF, which is a non-profit serving mostly students whose families cannot afford to pay for childcare, relies on a government reimbursement per child to cover most costs. Santos estimated that it would cost $750,000 to relocate just one of their preschool sites, and while public funds are available for repair and maintenance of preschool facilities, they would provide only a fraction of the cost to move.

Currently the state department of education reimburses providers at $38.29 per child per day.Providers have long complained that this rate makes it hard to cover basic costs. The California Budget Project, a nonprofit that analyzes fiscal policies as they impact low and middle-income residents, said the reimbursement rate from the California Department of Education has lost 20 percent of its value since 1980-1981. 

California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who worked for MAOF before his career in politics, agreed that low levels of state funding present a barrier to solving the problem.

“The reason a lot of childcare centers are located where they are located is because the agencies don’t have enough funds to be flexible, they don’t have enough funds to make different choices,” Rendon said. “If they were reimbursed at a higher level I’m sure they would have greater flexibility in terms of where to locate their centers.”

Furthermore, given then current housing crunch it would be difficult to find affordable locations further away from the freeways.

“In addition to the funding, in L.A. County there is no space available [to move the centers,]” Santos said.

She and other advocates believe that, with so many other barriers to preschool access for poor children, fear of air pollution would simply prevent more kids who need early childhood education from receiving it.

“Childcare is important and we want to make sure that those families come in and they leave their children so that when they start their first day of kindergarten they are ready and prepared,” Santos said.

Some advocates thinking more systemically

Some advocates are seeking more systemic solutions that don’t stop at the schoolhouse gate or play yard.

Pediatrician Elisa Nicholas of the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, for example, works with children who attend a preschool in the shadow of the truck-heavy Terminal Island freeway. She said that parents who send their children to the preschool don’t have other options – and the children need to be in school.

So Nicholas has begun thinking of other solutions: “Ideally it’s clean up the trucks, put the plant buffer, and maybe close this freeway, because I think probably we don’t really need this freeway,” she said.

There is currently a proposal before the Long Beach City Council to close a portion of the Terminal Island Freeway – one that’s drawn opposition from the ports, trucking companies and business interests that point to the fact that 40 percent of all of the United State’s imports arrive through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, and they need some way of being transported to their destinations.

But there is precedent for a version of broad action – in 2000, a group of mothers in east L.A. successfully organized to enact a ban on diesel trucks on a section of 7th Street, a stretch of road that feeds three major freeways.

Mark Lopez, who said his grandmother was part of that organizing fight but no longer speaks to the media, said that as they watched their children get sick, they began asking questions: “Why are there so many trucks driving right here? What is that black smoke that’s coming out? What are we feeling? Why do our kids have asthma? Why are we having issues breathing?”

Now, Lopez runs a group called East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice, which is currently organizing to clean up the air by fighting for a zero emission truck corridor on the 710 – two lanes in each direction solely dedicated to zero emission trucks.

Business groups, the ports, truck manufacturers and even CalTrans don’t like the idea, he said.

New Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said he is open to various solutions, but he acknowledges that a plan for zero emission trucks may have a tough time in state legislature.

“I know that there is a desire to get the diesel trucks off the roads,” Rendon said. “In terms of getting the votes, Sacramento is a very complicated place… but I think having the conversations starts that dialogue and then you start to figure out what is possible.”

An earlier version of this article stated the 2013-2014 reimbursement rate of $34.38 per child per day from the California Department of Education to state preschool providers. It has now been updated with the latest rate. It has also been updated to clarify requirements of the 2003 state law banning schools from opening within 500 feet of freeways.