Two invisible forces threaten the health of people living in Beacon Hill: Toxic pollutants in the air and loud noises. One of the largest neighborhoods in Seattle, Beacon Hill is framed by two interstate highways and two busy arterials. It’s also near three airports, the Port of Seattle, and a light rail station. Cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships spew toxic pollutants into the air, and carry disturbing noise into the neighborhood.
The health risks caused by pollution and the discordant soundscape in Beacon Hill are an environmental justice issue. In October 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded a $120,000 environmental justice grant to the Latino social services and culture nonprofit El Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill. The grant is being used to educate neighborhood residents who may not know about the air and noise pollution issues, and help them come up with solutions of their own.
Environmental justice is the idea that environmental risks should be distributed equally in society regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or other categories, and that decision-making power should be given to communities that have historically been disadvantaged and marginalized by environmental policies.
Recent high-profile stories framed as environmental justice issues include the handling of water crisis in mostly Black and poor Flint, Michigan; the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s battle last year to stop an oil pipeline from impacting their water; the hurricane in Puerto Rico that affected more than three million Puerto Ricans, leaving the majority of the island without water and electricity.
In Seattle, as in other cities, the impacts of pollution are most strongly-felt in low-income, non-white neighborhoods, especially those in the south end. Beacon Hill is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Seattle: According to the 2010 U.S. Census, it’s 50 percent Asian Pacific Islander, 22 percent Black, and 8 percent Latino, with 44 percent of residents foreign-born.
The EPA environmental justice grant is part of a larger effort that was spearheaded by two longtime Beacon Hill residents: Dr. Roseanne Lorenzana of the UW School of Public Health, and Maria Batayola, who has a long career working in social justice and equity in Seattle.
Lorenzana has since left the project to work on other Beacon Hill environmental justice projects related to the health effects of air pollution and noise pollution. She specializes in environmental toxicology and public health and has over 25 years of experience working in federal and state environmental agencies. Lorenzana assembled scientific research and documentation for the project, and put together a technical panel to support the project with members from UW, King County Health and Puget Sound Clean Air Agency
Batayola engaged the Beacon Hill community, including hiring outreach and recruitment coordinators for five languages commonly spoken in Beacon Hill. The engagement reached 467 people in 24 meetings.
Batayola and others are now drafting a Beacon Hill Air & Noise Pollution Health Impacts Community Action Plan, to be released on December 2.
This summer, the Washington State Legislature funded a study on the health effects of ultrafine particles emitted by aircraft near SeaTac Airport. Only two studies of its kind have been conducted, one in Norway and one at the Los Angeles International Airport.
Beacon Hill is one of several communities impacted by air pollution from SeaTac and from other vehicles, as well as noise pollution.
Both air and noise pollution are associated with health risks. Long-term exposure to certain air pollutants is associated with heart disease and childhood asthma, according to Tim Larson, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the UW. Larson was a technical adviser for Batayola and Lorenzana’s project.
For hospital discharge records in Seattle, the zip code that includes Beacon Hill, Georgetown, and South Park shows “a much higher occurrence and frequency of childhood asthma than the rest of the city,” Larson said. “This could be due to a number of factors, one of which might be air pollution,” he wrote in an email.
Children are particularly at risk from air pollution because their lungs are still developing, and they breathe in more polluted air in proportion to their body weight, Lorenzana said. Other people who face a greater risk include the elderly, people with asthma, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, and those who get less regular physical activity. And Beacon Hill happens to be one of the neighborhoods with the lowest levels of physical activity, according to Lorenzana.
This month, UW researchers released the results of a national study showing that toxic air contributes to poor mental health. A greater amount of fine particulate matter in the air is associated with greater psychological distress.
Then there’s noise pollution—unwanted noise that can disturb people and harm their health—brought to Beacon Hill from motor vehicles along I-5 and I-90, the Link Light Rail, various vehicles in the Port and Industrial Area, and, most importantly, planes touching down and taking off at three nearby airports: Boeing Field, Renton Airport, and SeaTac Airport.
“There can be one plane almost ‘nose to tail’ with the next plane,” Lorenzana said. “So the experience on the ground is just relentless. People feel like the planes are right on top of their heads.”
Noise from aircraft isn’t just annoying: it can be a health hazard. For children, it’s associated with sleep disturbance, stress, tinnitus, cognitive impairment, hyperactivity and decreased reading and math scores.
For adults, aircraft noise that disturb sleep can lead to high blood pressure. And even if someone is unaware of the noise or thinks they’ve gotten used to it—and even if it doesn’t wake them up—they can still be impacted. “Their cardiovascular system is still reacting,” said Lorenzana.
Other communities around the country have grown concerned about noise pollution from airplanes. Locally, residents of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and Bellevue and others in south Seattle have fought to reduce airplane noise over their heads. But unlike Beacon Hill, most of the communities tackling the problem around the country are relatively affluent, according to Lorenzana. To her knowledge, Beacon Hill is the only community in the country looking at the problem through an environmental justice lens.
In 2012, the The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the “Greener Skies Over Seattle” program, which had aircraft land at SeaTac along a smaller flight path, in order to save fuel. While it cut down on noise impacts on many communities in the Seattle area, Beacon Hill residents fear that it concentrated the level of noise over their neighborhood. An FAA administrator told the Seattle Times in 2012 that the new flight path wasn’t to blame for the noise over neighborhoods like Beacon Hill. Lorenzana, though, believes Beacon Hill residents have experienced an increase in air traffic since the Greener Skies program.
The noise pollution exacerbates the already considerable health problems in the neighborhood, Lorenzana said. “We already have this group of people on Beacon Hill who have these health disparities and socioeconomic indicators which make them more at risk,” Lorenzana said. “And now we have this concentration of noise that can have health effects similar to the ones that are already experienced.”
El Centro de la Raza is one of consortium of seven nonprofits put together by Batayola and Lorenzana, collectively called Community Health Advocates Collaboration Against Aircraft Emissions & Noise (CHAC). Most of the nonprofits are already dedicated to addressing community health, environmental, labor and equity issues primarily for communities of color in the Chinatown International District (CID) and south Seattle, and include International Community Health Services (ICHS), the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) and Puget Sound Sage, each located in the CID, as well as Got Green, Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), and Quieter Skies of Beacon Hill.
People living in Beacon Hill might not know about the health risks of air and noise pollution partly because the information isn’t always accessible, Batayola said. “It’s published in English, it’s on a website. If you happen to be studying public health or you have health practitioners in the family, I think you would know,” she said. “Our suspicion is that most of the people in Beacon Hill don’t know.”
Batayola believes that people in Beacon Hill get used to the environmental conditions and don’t notice them. And even if people are aware of widespread asthma, they not necessarily link it to systemic air pollution.
But Batayola believes that to get people to care about air and noise pollution, you have to make it personal. “When people are working to make ends meet, they’re busy with their children, busy with their lives, air quality is not one that rises pretty quickly,” she said.
The project distributed an informational report on air pollution to hundreds of people in six languages commonly spoken in Beacon Hill: English, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Somali and Chinese-Taishanese.
The purpose of the project is to educate and empower Beacon Hill residents, Batayola said. This involved “asking them, what are the actions that they want themselves, and their families and the neighborhood, to take to improve the health of the situation?” Batayola said. “This goes back to a fundamental when you’re doing environmental justice, cross-culturally competent approach, which is you make sure that the communities are involved.”
If the Beacon Hill community is aware of the environmental health risks facing them, they can more easily work to mitigate them, Batayola said. “When a community is informed about the conditions that affect them, and they care about themselves and their families and their communities, then they’re likely to take action,” she said. “And then that action becomes sustainable because we’re listening to what is important to them.”
But when it comes to air and noise pollution, it will be hard to achieve quick, sweeping changes. According to Larson of the UW, individuals and families can make positive changes in their own homes (like keeping the windows closed or installing air filters).
But systemic problems remain. “The larger issue that we struggle with is the impacts from broader transportation,” said Tania Park, Equity & Community Engagement Manager at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. “There’s a reason those trucks are driving through the communities and are just present, period. It drives our economy, our economy drives the need for those.”
And when it comes to compensation or mitigation from larger entities, this might be difficult, said Larson. “The institutions that would potentially have to pay for it, which would be SeaTac, the air carriers, the federal government, whoever you would argue, they’re going to either expect a very persuasive case, or they’re going to say that on the basis of their evidence, they may not see it as a problem. And that’s where communities can advocate for having more noise measurements done.”
Yet, according to Park, the community holds a lot of influence, since governmental can’t lobby for itself or its own ideas. “The residents have way more power to be able to push things through,” she said.
For now, Batayola hopes the mitigation will happen at the individual and family level and building from this, a neighborhood level.
Despite a Trump administration that wants to eliminate the EPA’s environmental justice programs entirely, the EPA grant is safe for two years. There may be other funding sources in the future, according to Lorenzana. And according to Batayola, the community can continue to work on the issue on its own.
El Centro de la Raza’s philosophy, Batayola pointed out, is based on Dr. Martin Luther King’s notion of the Beloved Community—an attitude of limitless goodwill and love directed toward building community. Underneath the data and research, Batayola said, this is what underlies the whole project. “This is another part of how you love the community—through its health.”