When we agreed to attend university in Los Angeles, a smoggy skyline was the catch to palm trees, beaches and year-round good weather. But air pollution remains much more than an ugly stain on the Southern California aesthetic — and more, even, than an environmental issue.
Research conducted by USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles scientists released this week -— indicating a correlation between autism and exposure to air pollution during pregnancy — demonstrates how dirty air is not just an eyesore, but a veritable public health risk. In light of these findings, USC students should do all they can to reduce pollution in Los Angeles, in the interest of our personal and community health.
The need for urgent action on air pollution stems from general uncertainty about just how dangerous pollution could be for our bodies. The USC-CHLA study is just one example of how the health impact of pollution is more expansive than scientists once thought.
“We’ve known for a long time that air pollution is bad for our lungs and especially for children,” Heather Volk, assistant professor of preventive medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine and the principal investigator of the study, told USC News on Nov. 27. “We’re now beginning to understand how air pollution may affect the brain.”
Autism might only be one of many serious medical conditions caused by air pollutants, conditions that could potentially affect us at all stages of life — not just during fetal development. Public health issues, meanwhile, affect everyone within a community, regardless of whether or not one actually gets sick. Illness and injury impede education and economic activity, lower community morale and increase local and national expenditures on health care.
When the stakes are this high, we can no longer act as if pollution does not affect us or the community in which we live. Instead, we must take steps to curb this effect.
At USC, this means, foremost, reducing our dependence on motor vehicles. USC News reported the USC-CHLA study found that “exposure to traffic-related air pollution during pregnancy and the first year of life is associated with a more than two-fold risk of autism.”
Also, in Los Angeles, one of the best ways to reduce such pollution is to bike more. In 2010, the California Air Resources Board estimated that for every one percent of car and light truck trips replaced by bicycle trips, there would be a 0.65 ton reduction in inhalable pollutant particles per day, statewide. The study specifically linked these same inhalable particles to increased risk of autism, even if the mother did not live near a busy road.
If each of USC’s 38,000 students, who comprise roughly one percent of Los Angeles’ population, pledged to replace car trips under five miles with biking, the city would see a significant decrease in inhalable particles and other air pollutants. As college students in Los Angeles, we are poised to make this change: Plenty of Trojans already own bikes, and an abundance of bike racks, bike lanes and good weather make the city ideal for bicyclists.
Public transportation offers another alternative to driving, particularly for longer trips. USC is a public transit hub in its own right, offering a free shuttle to the Health Sciences Campus and Union Station and within walking distance of the Expo Line, the F-Dash and more than 10 bus routes. The university also hosts a private Zimride Rideshare Community, making it easy for students to arrange carpools.
And we can not only change the way we travel, but the way we live at home. It is easy to disregard the consequences of leaving a light on, especially for those students whose utilities are paid for, but pollution is an inevitable byproduct of most forms of energy production.
Autism might just be the tip of the iceberg of pollution-related brain disorders and other health problems. To prevent what else might be lurking underneath the surface, students should make every effort to reduce their contributions to air pollution, benefiting ourselves and our community.
Francesca Bessey is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies and international relations. Her column “Open Campus” ran Wednesdays.