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Breathing Uneasy: The Air Pollution Crisis in South Seattle - June 17, 2011

June 18, 2011

How toxic emissions from diesel trucks are endangering residents in south Seattle. This report examines the fallout of truck emissions in south Seattle, which a new study says has some of the worst air in the state. It contains lessons and implications for any area dealing with major roadway traffic near schools and residential neighborhoods.

This story is the product of a collaboration between InvestigateWest, an independent nonprofit newsroom covering the Pacific Northwest, and KCTS 9. | Read the story

Producer's Notes

Producer's Notes

Producer notes are the chatty story-within-a-story and as such should begin with a confession. Here’s mine: I am that most reviled of creatures in Seattle, a Californian. But wait it gets worse. I’m from Los Angeles.

What does this have to do with air pollution? Plenty. As a kid growing up in Southeast LA, I lived and breathed air pollution. Smog is something you can see. It’s a brown, semi-transparent chemical haze that looks gross except at sunset when it turns the sky into a cool-looking moody bruised rainbow.

You can feel air pollution. As a kid I could tell when the air was bad even before the government declared a smog alert and the nuns made us come inside during recess. All I had to do was take a deep breath and my lungs would reverberate with a not entirely unpleasant ache. That’s air pollution.

So imagine my surprise when I’m assigned to do an air pollution story on Seattle. The clean-and-green Emerald City I now call home where I’ve been taking deep breathes without a hint of ache. Turns out I had lots to learn.

Long story short, since last fall I’ve been spending a lot of time in South Seattle with environmental reporter Robert McClure and videographer Greg Davis looking into the problem of air pollution in South Park and Georgetown. Along the way, my myths about air pollution have vanished into thin air.


What I’ve learned about air pollution

You can’t always see it
In fact, the stuff we don’t see is the most hazardous to our health because tiny particles get into our lungs and can’t be coughed out.

Diesel is the enemy
The tiniest particles come from diesel exhaust which scientists are finding, is bad for you in very small doses.

Air pollution doesn’t only cause breathing problems
When you breathe in miniscule diesel particulates, toxins hitchhike into your body, into your blood, maybe even past the blood/brain barrier – to cause heart attacks, strokes and cancers.

It’s in your neighborhood
Diesel is probably in your life thanks to delivery trucks, garbage trucks and buses which all run on diesel engines many of which are old and polluting. New diesel engines run 90% cleaner but they are expensive and those old diesel engines run forever.

Puget Sound’s cities are dirty too
Seattle has a national reputation as an eco-nirvana but the Puget Sound region is in the top 5 percent of communities nationally for air toxics.

Don’t live near a highway or port
The best thing you can do to breathe easy: don’t live or work close to a major road, highway or freeway or port. How far away do you need to be? Four football fields, according to Dr. Joel Kaufman, who heads up the diesel exposure lab at the University of Washington.

Jenny Cunningham, Producer