May 30, 2024

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Earlier this month, Paulina Vaca stood at the corner of Pulaski Road and 41st Street, one of Chicago’s busiest intersections for truck traffic.

“I see a sea of ​​trucks,” said Vaca, who was with the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). In less than 60 seconds, she counted eight trucks.

That was just the beginning. In less than one hour, about 430 trucks passed through the intersection she was monitoring in Archer Heights, a mostly Latino community on the city’s southwest side. She was joined by José Miguel Acosta Córdova, who works for a community group known as the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

The two organizations recently had a report measures the extent of the city’s truck traffic, counting trucks moving through one nearby suburb and 17 Chicago neighborhoods. Using sensors installed at 35 locations, they tracked the number of medium- and heavy-duty trucks that passed in a span of more than 24 hours. Over the course of a day, more than 5,100 trucks and buses were recorded in Archer Heights – the most of any neighborhood.

This data points to key questions Chicago and Illinois must answer, Acosta Córdova said.

“When are there too many warehouses and when are there too many trucks?” he asked.

It’s a question that goes beyond Chicago, which happens to be the largest cargo center in North America. Black and brown communities living near the industrial corridors of many urban areas pay disproportionately for this with their health.

Vaca and Acota Córdova are not alone in their research on local traffic. Across the country, local groups are increasingly finding ways to quantify the extent of localized air pollution, turning real-time data into useful information that neighbors can use to inform daily decisions, such as whether or not to stay indoors.

Aman and wife stand next to a road intersection with a truck in the background.
José Miguel Acosta Córdova, left, and Paulina Vaca stand at one of the busiest intersections in Chicago, in a neighborhood on the Southwest Side. Grist / WBEZ /Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

While state and federal agencies actively monitor air quality, their networks are limited, according to a US Government Accountability Office report published last month. The national ambient air quality monitoring system is not designed to identify pollution hotspots. More and more, localized data is exactly what frontline communities are asking for to protect and advocate for themselves.

“They want to know better than what their pollution level is likely to be,” says James Bradbury, the director of research and policy analysis at the Georgetown Climate Centera nonpartisan research institution that studies federal and state climate policies.

“They want more granular and specific information that informs what’s happening in their communities,” Bradbury said.

Community air quality monitoring programs are beginning across the country, he added.

Of Newark, New Jersey after the Bay Area, local organizations are counting trucks and installing small networks of air quality sensors to fill the gap left open by state monitoring systems. As of 2022, Bradbury added, the federal government has funded more than 130 community air monitoring projects nationwide, according to $53.4 million.

Freight continues to be a major economic driver in the Chicago region, and it comes at a significant health cost. The Respiratory Health Association ranked Illinois fifth out of all states for the highest number of deaths from diesel engine pollution per capita in 2023.

Diesel is what largely moves freight around, according to Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Organization.

“What comes out of the tailpipe of those engines is a collection of air pollutants: everything from nitrogen oxides to fine particles, and even carbon dioxide,” Urbaszewski said. Exposure to these pollutants is associated with a host of medical problems, ranging from respiratory to cardiovascular health impacts.

Acosta Córdova said Illinois should adopt stricter trucking regulations already in use in California and several other states. This policies will raise emissions standards for tailpipe pollution and set a path for zero-emission trucks.

Vaca said this new trucking data she and her colleagues compiled won’t surprise longtime residents of the city’s industrial corridors. But it is hard evidence that he hopes will help convince elected leaders that air pollution is a matter of life and death.

“With these numbers, it’s really crucial to then advocate for more electric vehicles,” Vaca said. “Using it to advocate for allowing more industry in areas that are already congested.”

More than 1,000 lives and more than $10 billion could be saved annually if the Chicago region electrified about 30% of all light and heavy-duty vehicles, according to a study published last fall by researchers at Northwestern University.

“We found that the majority of the health benefits of those reductions in pollution occurred in environmental justice communities or communities of color, or disadvantaged communities in Chicago,” said Daniel E. Hortona professor of earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern.

Earlier this month, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced finalized federal emission standards for heavy vehicles that will require manufacturers to limit pollution from heavy trucks from 2030. It is estimated that the new policy will prevent a billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere. But Acosta Córdova said the guidelines do not go far enough to address the climate crisis. In Illinois, it will be years before residents see relief from freight-driven air pollution.

“The biggest thing we want to see from this is more data collection,” Acosta Córdova said. “But also finally, [we want] a full transition to zero-emission trucks.”

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