Air pollution adds to a number of Cleveland’s ills. So why does no one talk about it?

vehicle exhaust

Vehicle exhaust contains a number of harmful pollutants, including fine particulate matter, and it is increasingly the primary source of urban air pollution (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

A few weeks ago, Rachel Dissell and Brie Zeltner from The Plain Dealer released their roughly 26-part series,Toxic Neglect,” which provided an incredible deep dive into the City of Cleveland’s chronic lead poisoning crisis. The series is truly outstanding journalism, something that is becoming increasingly rare in Northeast Ohio these days, and enough to max out your rage meter. If lines like “[Cleveland puts] more money into baiting for mosquitoes to curb West Nile virus and to prevent rabies in raccoons than we put into lead poisoning” and “national policy for decades has been to use primarily poor, minority children as household lead detectors” don’t enrage you, you don’t have a heart.

Dissell and Zeltner’s thorough investigation shines a light upon a major issue that is too often ignored in this region – the fact that at least 2,000 Cleveland children are poisoned by lead each year – and documents the City’s completely inability (desire?) to mitigate the crisis. They attempted to put a price tag on the problem, noting that lead reduces IQ and lifetime earnings potential, increasing healthcare costs, and contributes to violent crime in a city already plagued by them.

Dissell and Zeltner do an incredible job of displaying how the environment into which Cleveland children are born and in which they are raised irrevocably affects their futures. Their investigation centers on the city’s legacy of lead paint in its aged housing stock, the chief source of lead in the region. While airborne lead used to be an urban scourge, tetraethyl lead was finally phased out of all gasoline in the US in 1996. While much of that lead remains in our contaminated soils to this day, it is no longer the main culprit.

This series is just the latest in a string of great work from Zeltner, including earlier explorations of childhood asthma and infant mortality. But whereas it makes sense to minimize the role of air pollution in the lead series, this omission makes far less sense in the other two cases. We know that it is a important driver for both. But, for some reason, people in Northeast Ohio keep turning a blind eye to a problem that, quite literally, is all around them at all times.

It was with all of this in the back of my mind that I read a recent article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that examined the impacts of vehicle emissions on the cognitive development of children. The study, written by a group of public health professionals in the Boston area, focused on how exposure to pollution from traffic during late pregnancy and early childhood affects the brains of children later in life. The authors looked at the results of cognitive analyses for 1,109 children, aged 6-11 years old, who were part of an existing health study from 1999-2002. Because they tapped into this cohort, the authors had access to data on a number of variables, including household income, mother’s IQ, exposure to lead, and whether or not the mother smoked. Accordingly, they were able to control for each of these factors when conducting their analysis.

They split their sample into three main groups: those children living less than 50 meters from a major roadway, those living between 50 and 200 meters away, and those living more than 200 meters away. These distances are significant, as coarse and fine particulate matter rarely travels more than 10 to 100 meters in the air before settling back to the surface. This allowed them to examine how children growing up in close proximity to heavy daily automobile traffic would fair later in life. The results were stark:

Among children residing primarily in urban and suburban Eastern Massachusetts, prenatal residential proximity to major roadways (< 50 m) predicted lower nonverbal intelligence, verbal intelligence, and visual motor abilities in mid-childhood.

Those children living closest to heavily trafficked roads scored, on average, 7.5 points lower on nonverbal IQ tests, 3.8 points lower on verbal IQ tests, and 5.3 points lower on visual motor skills tests. In other words, the cognitive effects of growing up alongside a major roadway is comparable to an increase from the 5th percentile of childhood blood levels to the 95th percentile. In fact, at a 6.9 point decline in IQ from lead, the effects of traffic appear to be even greater.

Interestingly, the authors were unable to find a statistically significant effect of traffic-related air pollution on childhood IQ, perhaps because the effects of pollution were so tightly entangled with socioeconomic factors.

But the evidence does not stop there. In a 2008 study using another cohort of children from Boston, Suglia and colleagues looked at the connection between early childhood exposure to black carbon, a particularly harmful component of fine particulate matter, and cognitive function when children were 8 to 11 years old. They found that children exposed to high levels of traffic-related black carbon pollution saw their IQ scores fall by 3 points, even when controlling for socioeconomic variables, exposure to tobacco smoke, and blood lead levels. The authors noted that this IQ decrement was comparable to those experienced by children born to smokers (4 points) and by children poisoned by lead (1-5 points). Additionally, a separate 2011 study found a connection between prenatal exposure to traffic pollution and an elevated risk of childhood autism.

All told, mounting evidence suggests that children exposed to high levels of traffic-related pollution before and after birth are far more likely to have lower IQs and to suffer from developmental disorders. Just because we rarely see visible pollution like that from the mid-20th century these days does not mean that the problem is behind us.

It’s incredibly important for a city like Cleveland, which is struggling to break free from repeated cycles of poverty and abandonment, to come to grips with this reality fully, for two main reasons.

First, it may force us to recognize the consequences of our individual actions. Our driving habits are responsible for the majority of fine particulates and nitrogen oxide emissions in this region. We are part of the problem. Maybe the girl growing up on East 79th or West 98th is struggling in school, at least partly, because of the toxic environment into which she born. If we finally start to talk about this, perhaps we can make changes, even if just on the margins. Was driving half a mile to the store really worth aggravating her asthma? Was idling so you could run the AC while waiting to pick up your child worth the extra pollution you exposed him to?

Secondly, acknowledging these issues will force us to rethink our regional development choices. If we want to help improve the lives of low-income Clevelanders, should we really be, say, building a $331 million urban highway that will just bring more traffic, noise, pollution, and dislocation to communities that already have a surplus of them? Is that wisest use of our limited resources? Are we honestly going to help lift people out of poverty by exacerbating some of its causes?

We can’t drive our way out of a driving problem, and we can’t sprawl our way out of a sprawl problem. I don’t know if air pollution is topic that can bring all of this to the fore. Obviously I’m biased. But it’s also a ubiquitous problem in this region, and it plays a factor in a host of our pressing problems. It’s time to make it a permanent part of the conversation.

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  • I am not at all certain that you would have liked the old inner-city Cleveland Tim, the pre- Clean Air Act Cleveland. I can recall when visibility in the Tremont and Ohio City neighborhoods was a half-mile or less, with auto, truck, railroad and jetliner exhaust mixed with coal smoke when all the steel mills ,Alcoa, and the little lead and alloy smelters down along Bradley Rd were all still in-business, as well as the Brookpark Ford engine block mill. I am not certain that you would have liked the stockyards area when thousands of cattle were kept there, slaughtered there, and the stench was overpowering there either.

    During World War II just Cleveland’s hot metal producers employed over 60,000 workers, and then there was the Standard Oil refinery just north of where the Republic Steel side of the old steel mill is, which shut down in 1971 because it couldn’t comply with the Clean Air Act. Inner-city Cleveland’s air quality today is far better than it used to be in the 1960s. I remember when you couldn’t see halfway across the Clark Ave or Harvard Rd bridges the smoke was so bad. Even as late as the early 1990s that I am aware of every morning you would end up with coal dust covering your car too.

    I’m not certain that you would have liked inner-city Cleveland when the city had triple the residents it has today either, as the roads were then choked with traffic, and everywhere you went was crowded or had a line. Today’s Cleveland is virtually dead and you still complain about it? It sounds to me what you want isn’t city living, it is some fantasy that doesn’t exist. Lots of Cleveland’s residents would be only too happy to attract another major steel mill to town despite the pollution involved.

    If the State hadn’t built the I-490 stub the CMHA Riverdale Project would be triple its current size and Tremont might not have become gentrified as it is today. I am one urban planner (Cleveland State, 1986-1990, Metro State, 2012 ,and the University of Colorado Denver as a grad sustainability planning student currently, and an APA member to-boot) who feels strongly that the proposed parkway extension across the east side would be a good idea, to try to attract some replacement industrial and warehousing employment to the brownfields there.

    Otherwise Cleveland will continue on the same path that Detroit and Youngstown are on, losing more and more housing stock and neighborhood businesses until the cost of maintaining infrastructure to serve an ever more limited customer base results in major public infrastructure breakdowns, which will further exacerbate the decline of parts of the city. I used to work on the east side, at East 79th and Garden Valley, just south of the old Garden Valley housing project that isn’t there any more. I worked there for 5 years in the 1980s.

    Here is some of my old Cleveland that I remember. I doubt you would have wanted to live in Cleveland then.

    Republic Steel:

    American Steel & Wire at the Central Furnace site:

    Just south of downtown from Cleveland’s glory days, before I-90 allegedly ruined it.

    Would you want to live here Tim?

    Here is the Cleveland that I remember the Clark Ave. Bridge from the early 1970s.,_LOOKING_EAST_FROM_WEST_13TH_STREET,_ARE_OBSCURED_BY_INDUSTRIAL_SMOKE_-_NARA_-_550175.jpg

    I used to live on West 14th just a block north of Clark in the 1980s. I also lived in Ohio City right off of West 29th and Franklin, and I once owned my first house in Old Brooklyn right near Pearl and Biddulph too. I don’t think that you would have wanted to live in my Cleveland back then as there were too many drunks and drug addicts to try to ride bicycles around then. It was bad-enough trying to drive 18-wheel trucks in the city as I once did for a decade there.

    Yes, sustainability planning is a lot of work, especially economic sustainability in our older cities. Sustainability should be a piece of cake in a place like Denver but what about a sustainable water and food supply? We are still working on that one now at 3.25 million people across the Denver metro area and growing by 2% per-year, with our aquifers facing imminent depletion, along with rapidly rising temperatures, rising snow elevation levels, and declining annual runoff too. At least we have a strong sustainable economy as if some things continue on their present course we will have lots of spare cash to buy the water we need to survive with.

    I must say something else though. In one of your other blog pieces you said that Cleveland’s annual snowfall was only 37 inches, which is about 18 inches less than the average annual snowfall in the Cleveland I remember. In memory of Cleveland the way it used to be here is a video of Channel 8 News that occurred during the Great Blizzard in January, 1978, the same night that I grossed $2700 driving a tow truck out on the east side towing cars off of Chagrin Blvd and Green Rd that were lined-up like rush hour in 3 feet of snow when it was 15 below zero with the wind gusting to 60 mph, back when $2700 was worth what $15,000 is today!

    Yes, as I have already said, I’m not sure that you would have liked my Cleveland at all.

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