Trucks Drive Health Concerns in Southeastern SF

Jackie Bernardo

City agencies and residents want changes along truck routes through southeast San Francisco because of concerns over air pollution, traffic noise and rising rates of lung disease.

More than two out of five households in the Excelsior District are located near high-volume roadways. Residents breathe pollution that causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, increasing risks of heart disease, cancer and premature death, according to People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights (PODER).

“In southeast San Francisco, the traffic disproportionately affects residents, [causing] serious impacts for health,” Megan Wier, an epidemiologist with the Health Department, told the city’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee during a recent hearing.

According to Wier, increased exposure to vehicle exhaust can cause asthma and lung disease; traffic noise disrupts sleep and impacts children’s ability to learn; and traffic congestion contributes to increased vehicle, pedestrian and bike collisions. The congested roadways include the Still/Lyell freeway and the freeways near Silver and San Bruno Avenue.

After the meeting, city supervisors voted to form an Energy Efficiency Steering Committee. The committee could recommend spending energy conservation funds in the neighborhoods most in need of improvements, said Tom Rivard, an inspector for the Health Department.

Wier said changes would require coordination with area agencies, such as the Bay Area Quality Air Management District. Changes could include building sound walls near freeways, adding double-paned windows and enforcing vehicle and parking restrictions on specific streets.

Large-scale Issue
“There is a lot to be done because the scale of the issue is much larger than specific streets,” Le Tim Ly of the Chinese Progressive Association said at the meeting. “In the southeast, we have the highest rates of asthma hospitalization [and this most affects] low-income, immigrant communities.”

Charlie Sciammas, a community organizer with PODER, presented data from community surveys that focused on residential southeast neighborhoods. It showed 46 percent of residents smell pollution on their block every week and that 44 percent of families live within 500 feet to high-volume roadways.

“These are primarily low-income community members, immigrant families, people of color, and we also know they are at most risk for long-term exposure [to] traffic pollution,” said Sciammas.

Sciammas would like truck operators to adhere to newly designated truck routes. He wants the Health Department, Metropolitan Transit Authority and the police to find better ways of responding to community complaints.

However, he doesn’t expect any quick changes. “It will be a slow process,” he said. “[It might take] a whole year’s worth to [involve] city agencies [with] this issue.”

No Change
“Progress has been made, and we support that, but the point is that there have been no physical changes or improvements,” said Linda Weiner, a representative from the Bay Area Clean Air Task Force.

According to Weiner, southeast San Francisco has the highest number of asthma cases each year and that 40 percent of households in the Excelsior district have families with children. Those children have an increased risk of significantly losing lung function by the age of 18 or experiencing other health conditions that cannot be reversed, she said.

“We urge the development of a specific action and enforcement plan,” said Weiner. “The bottom line is that the more trucks that can be re-routed away from residents, the less respiratory and heart disease, and the less burden in the already over-burdened healthcare system.”

Victoria Sanchez, a neighborhood resident for 20 years, said there have hardly been any improvements in her neighborhood. “I really haven’t seen anything accomplished, to tell you the truth,” said Sanchez, who added that she encounters traffic noise, dirty windows and pollution from passing trucks and buses every morning.

“I wish they would come to my house and really see what I see at 8 o’clock in the morning,” she added. “Even if I touch my house, I can feel the dirt from the pollution.”