Air pollution is a major silent killer, which disproportionately affects low-income communities of color. For example, fine particulate matter in air pollution penetrates into the deepest parts of the lungs and contributes to early deaths, heart problems, respiratory illness like asthma, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes, worsened mental health, and increased cancer risk. About 1 of every 25 deaths in the U.S. occurs prematurely because of exposure to air pollution. Air pollution is responsible for many more deaths than alcohol use, physical inactivity or high sodium intake.
Air pollution can also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections such as COVID-19. Harvard research found that a small increase in fine particulate matter air pollution is associated with an increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Another study in Los Angeles, California linked COVID-19 cases and deaths with long-term nitrogen dioxide exposures. Thus, air pollution worsens the likelihood of poor COVID-19 outcomes. These findings suggest that poor air quality might have contributed to excess COVID-19 deaths in the City of Santa Ana, which suffered the highest per capita COVID-19 death rate in Orange County.
Exposure to air pollution and their related adverse health outcomes are inequitably distributed in low-income communities of color. Compared to surrounding cities, Santa Ana has many areas zoned for light and heavy industrial use interspersed very close to residential areas and schools. For example, zip code 92707 is home to an extensive industrial corridor that lies almost directly adjacent to several apartment complexes, as well as Kennedy Elementary School and Century High School. In addition, Santa Ana is surrounded by multiple busy freeways, railroads, and dense surface streets, and is under the flight path for John Wayne International Airport. These multiple emission sources increase air pollution exposure and public health risks for Santa Ana residents. In fact, Santa Ana neighborhoods ranked among the highest for asthma-related emergency room visits for children in Orange County. Further, an unpublished UC-Irvine study based on a Master’s thesis project found that the likelihood of having an asthma diagnosis increased by 20% for children living closest to the industrial zone compared to those who lived farther away from the industrial zone, indicating that industrial zone may be an important contributor to children’s asthma.
Unfortunately, Santa Ana does not have any government-operated air quality monitoring stations.
In Orange County, South Coast Air Management District operates two air monitoring stations that measure fine particulate matter, including one in the City of Anaheim, which is more than five miles away from the north edge of Santa Ana. This monitoring station won’t be able to capture local air pollutants that Santa Ana residents breathe. In addition, no measurements are available at all on air toxins such as metals and volatile organic compounds, many of which are known to cause cancer and are released from industrial and traffic emissions.
Per California Senate Bill 1000, the City of Santa Ana needs to include environmental justice policies in its General Plan. The latest Santa Ana General Plan Update mentions the collaboration with the South Coast Air Quality Management District and local stakeholders to outline objectives and strategies for monitoring air pollution. However, the timeline only mentions 2022, even though long-term commitments are needed to make meaningful impacts on air quality improvement. Most importantly, missing from the Santa Ana General Plan are actionable goals, such as establishing a long-term air monitoring station in the city, closely monitoring emissions of existing industrial facilities, restricting heavy-duty truck activities and emissions, and monitoring indoor air quality for residents and workers in industrial sectors with potentially high pollution levels.
As one of the youngest cities in the nation, Santa Ana has 27% of its population under 18 years old. Children and youth in Santa Ana are at risk of poor health outcomes linked with unaddressed air pollution. City council members can make decisions right now that would improve air quality in Santa Ana for generations to come. Instead of moving forward with a faulty General Plan update at the next council meeting, they can delay approval of the Environmental aspects of the plan and take direction from the city’s residents who are most impacted by pollution. The health and wellbeing of Santa Ana’s youth cannot wait. As a first step, the City should establish routine air monitoring sites for criteria air pollutants and air toxics and should be more proactive in reducing current pollutant emissions and preventing future toxic emissions. As a Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health and academic partner to several local environmental justice movements in Santa Ana, I call upon the City of Santa Ana to be responsive to the community demands brought forth by MPNA and OCEJ and adopt more rigorous environmental justice policies in its General Plan to address the existing environmental injustices and health inequities affecting Santa Ana residents.
Jun Wu, Ph.D., is a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine. She is an expert in population-based research on environmental exposure assessment, environmental epidemiology and environmental health disparity, with extensive experience and knowledge in examining the influences of various environmental exposures, including air pollution and climate change, on maternal and fetal health, children’s health and other health outcomes.
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