West Oakland Neighbors Tackle Toxic Legacy

By Kwan Booth
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Part of the Bay Area Toxic Tour

Just about any long-term West Oakland resident can rattle off a list of health issues effecting their community: toxins from cargo ships docking at the nearby Port of Oakland, diesel smoke from Port-bound trucks, pollution from the two freeways that border the neighborhood, illegal dumping, and lack of accessible health care.

In fact, research funded by the Pacific Institute found that some of the area’s 403 toxic hot spots date back to post-World War II construction — and that nearly 82 percent of West Oakland residents live near one of these potentially contaminated sites.

A 2008 study by the California Air Resources Board indicates that West Oaklanders are exposed to diesel toxins at almost three times the levels of the rest of the city. As a result, children living in the 94607 zip code are seven times more likely than other California youth to be hospitalized for asthma and related issues.

“We’re still talking years”

Incremental changes have been made on both state and local levels, including the port’s current Comprehensive Truck Management Plan — yet many locals feel that significant improvements are still a long way off.

“There’s a lot of talk. People talk about how ‘this needs to be done, we’re going to do this'” said Shirley Burnell, a community activist and co-director of West Oakland Acorn, “but still things are being pushed out. Instead of doing something today or tomorrow or next week we’re still talking years.”

Disraeli Hives, 41, was born and raised in West Oakland, and has seen effects of poor air quality on three generations of her family. Both she and her mother have been diagnosed with asthma, as have 8 of her 10 children. The family is on a regular rotation of inhalers and respiratory pumps, and Ms. Hives only recently started breathing without the use of an oxygen tank.

Hives said that almost two-thirds of the children on her block have some form of respiratory illness, but that getting regular care has been an uphill battle, as many of her neighbors are dependent on public transportation.

“A lot of kids down here got asthma and their parents can’t afford to afford to buy a new car, or a used car for that matter,” Hives said, “so they’re on foot or catching buses and you know how long you got to sit at the AC Transit.”

Mary Frazier, a registered nurse with the Prescott Joseph Center — a nonprofit service agency and home to one of the only health clinics in the area — has seen how the dearth of accessible health care contributes to larger social issues.

“How long does it take for you to get to Kaiser from here or to the Children’s Hospital or Highland (by bus)” she asks. “It’s an all day outing, so you lose time at work, kids lose time at school, the kids don’t get good grades in school, you lose your job, so it’s part of this cycle of the diseases of poverty-like diabetes, obesity, asthma and respiratory problems.”

“Multiple factors”
This cyclical pattern is what inspired activists like Ms. Burnell to champion environmental causes, after initially focusing on other social concerns like job security.

“After I got involved I saw that it wasn’t just the jobs, it was the environment, and that needed to be cleaned up because so many people have asthma, so even if you do have jobs you’re sick all the time” Burnell said.

Dr. Washington Burns, Prescott Joseph’s Executive Director, said that low wages further complicate the issue, along with violence, drug use, lack of jobs and the general stress of day-to-day survival.

“In an area like here, in West Oakland,” he said, “the low economic status of the residents has a bearing … I’m not saying that air quality isn’t a factor, but there are multiple factors.”

To address these diverse problems, Dr. Burns’ organization hosts the West Oakland Asthma Coalition, a network of community groups that address health concerns at both the grassroots and policy levels.

These include the Breathmobile, a mobile home retrofitted as a “custom-built mobile pediatric asthma and allergy clinic” that brings health services directly to West Oakland residents in their communities.

Other initiatives include traditional research and policy programs by partners such as the Pacific Institute, as well as more experimental efforts — such as the Bamboo BioFilter, which plants fast-growing bamboo near truck facilities in the hopes of cleaning the air organically.

For residents such as Ms. Hives, improving the health of West Oakland will require community awareness, research, regulation — and patience.

“We’re a strong community” she said. “We been through a lot but we’re going to be here. We’re going to keep fighting.”

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