skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Adrian Martinez’s Blog

What can the LA and Long Beach freight industry learn from the infamous Tuskegee experiment?

Adrian Martinez

Posted October 28, 2011

, , , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

Hudson Elementary School in Long Beach sits at the crossroads where learning your ABCs meets breathing your UFPs.  UFP stands for Ultra-fine Particles, which are particles so tiny they can lodge deeply into young children’s lungs and even enter their blood stream leading to a myriad of health harms.  

The railroad, shipping and trucking industries that dominate communities in the harbor area of Los Angeles and Long Beach are conducting a high stakes experiment on how much suffering and harm the primarily children of color attending schools like Hudson can handle.  Ambivalent to the current domination of their lungs, leading to asthma rates at Hudson that is twice the national average, these industries are seeking to add several large-scale projects to the long list of already built projects that will add more diesel equipment near some harbor area schools.  These proposed projects include the Port of Long Beach’s Pier S development, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe’s Southern California International Gateway project, and Union Pacific’s Intermodal Container Transfer Facility expansion project.     

The expansion of the freight industry in the Los Angeles region is no longer simply an economic issue; it is also a moral issue.  A recent article in UCLA Magazine tells the story of one of the casualties of the freight industrial complex’s desire to increase the toxic diesel-spewing trucks, ships and trains that allow us to move a myriad of products manufactured in China and other Asian countries to the shelves of stores in the United States. 

The story discusses Peter, a student with asthma at Hudson Elementary.  Unlike many of his other classmates with asthma, Peter suffers from a particular type of asthma that harms approximately 10 percent of the asthmatic kids at the school.  In the article, they call it “uncontrolled asthma,” but I think the better term would be “Super Asthma.”  It is an asthma so potent that it can crush a child’s lung like a Super Hero crushes its enemy.  It is a cruel asthma unresponsive to modern treatments like inhalers.  Instead, those who suffer from this asthma are often forced to go to the Emergency Room when the ailment takes over their body. 

The story describes some of the ways that asthma has affected this young boy attending school near ground zero of Long Beach’s freight industrial complex.  For example, Peter takes six medications daily.  In addition, he is often deprived of such activities as playing outside.  The article also discusses his mother’s fear when she is rendered somewhat helpless in relieving the pain and fear overcoming her child.  To make matters worse, researchers at UCLA are figuring out that there may be a genetic connection between asthma and children.  There is one genetic mutation that researchers have found has a causal connection with asthma.  This genetic mutation includes a racial component because 70% of African Americans as opposed to 20% of the population-at-large carry this mutation. 

Overall, the ports of LA and Long Beach have made laudable strides to clean up their filthy operations over the last five years.  It was constant community struggle that brought these government-run businesses to actually clean up their acts.  But, as the ports have trademarked their green brands, they have failed to take into account that their work to date is simply the tip of the iceberg.  We continue to have a health epidemic in the harbor area, and yet projects that will add more diesel equipment are shoved down the throats of harbor area students, including Peter.  And many of those most impacted are children of color.  These casualties of the great freight race are children who to no fault of their own cannot play basketball, run outside, and even attend all their classes because an asthma attack forces them to miss school. 

There are solutions; the ports need to actually move beyond the rhetoric of pushing electric technologies.  A switch to electric technologies would result in dramatic reductions in the toxic pollutants currently spewed by the wide range of equipment necessary to move freight through the LA metro region.  The ports have invested some money into these electric technologies, but they have been more concerned recently with pushing the diesel status quo instead of actually taking up this necessary wide scale electrification.  I’m not saying it will be easy to shift from a diesel-dominated freight industrial complex to a cleaner, quieter electric system.  But the transition is critical. 

The facts and circumstances of the Tuskegee experiment, which had at its core rampant intentional discrimination, differ dramatically from the freight industrial complex.  However, there is at least one salient thread that can relate to the health issues faced by the harbor area children.  Specifically, the Tuskegee experiment shockingly lasted forty years.  It has been approximately 15 years since the freight boom of the harbor area of LA and Long Beach.  Yet, we currently understand the devastating impact this industry is having on the health and welfare of children in the harbor area.  Are we going to wait another 25 years before we stop this experimentation on what are the bounds you can stretch the respiratory health of these children?

Until the industry, port leaders, and transportation planners really put their full force and effort to figuring out the electrification issue, children like Peter will continue to be subjects in this cruel experiment on their lungs.  Let’s not make the same mistakes of the past. 

Share | | |


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In