The Waiting Room, last year’s award-wining, independent documentary about Oakland’s Highland Hospital, spun off the Storytelling Project, a “location-based social media and community engagement initiative that aims to improve the patient experience through the collection and sharing of digital content”. I was particularly taken by “Breathing Lessons” a 2-minute clip featuring 7 year old Nia Walker who was brought into Highland by her recurring asthma attacks.

In his recent State of the State message, Governor and former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown declared that “climate change tipping points can be reached before we even know we have passed them”.

What do these two have in common?

While Jerry Brown was talking about California’s future, for West Oakland the future is now. Wedged between three freeways, the Port and a rail yard, West Oakland is home to over 20,000, predominately African American, people. Every day residents here breathe air with five times greater diesel particulate levels than what residents breathe in other parts of Oakland. As a result, asthma is epidemic in this area and this particulate exposure may also threaten West Oakland residents with an increased lifetime risk for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Margaret Gordon
Margaret Gordon
In 2000 a small group of active community members formed the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) to tackle West Oakland’s environmental health conditions with an eye towards reducing the statistic that one in five West Oakland youngsters suffers from asthma. Lead by co-chairs Margaret Gordon, former Oakland Port Commissioner and Brian Beverage, WOIEP undertook a 2003 study measuring diesel exhaust soot produced by trucks passing daily through West Oakland, calculating an equivalent impact of this number one California toxic air pollutant to 127,677 cars, and determining that West Oakland’s diesel particulates per square mile were 90 times greater than in California as a whole.

Largely due to WOEIP’s work, the Port of Oakland introduced (and funded) a limited-duration diesel engine retrofit project. While this initiative may have made a small dent in the problem, more widespread, accessible and practical solutions must be embraced. We owe it to 7-year old Nia Walker and all those children breathing in West Oakland.

Kathy Neal