With millions of Americans rushing to take advantage of Black Friday deals this weekend, the shopping spree will add to a pollution crisis in American ports. For months, disrupted supply chains have been polluting the port districts with more pollution than they normally can endure. The holiday season will make it worse.
The disaster is developing in spectacular fashion in Southern California, home to the busiest port complex in the Western Hemisphere (including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach). Here, cargo ships have piled up off the coast as the pandemic ravages global supply chains. The congestion extends to domestic distribution centers, which attract trucks, trains and planes that bring goods from warehouses to consumers’ front doors.
All of this has consequences for people’s health. “We need these things from these ships, I understand,” says Afif El-Hasan, pediatrician and national spokesman for the American Lung Association. “But it will hurt the people around [areas] these goods come through. ”
There are many factors that have destroyed global supply chains, but in short, there has been a supply-demand mismatch. The pandemic has closed factories. Meanwhile, people started shopping more for home improvement projects and new hobbies that they picked up during the pandemic lockdowns. In the USA, the container ships carrying these goods from Asia increased in the ports. In the first three quarters of this year, container movements in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were nearly 30 percent higher than in the same period in 2019. In November, container ships parked outside the port of Los Angeles for an average of 17 days – more than twice as long at the beginning of the year. This has literally led to more air pollution in the region because the ships are idling their auxiliary engines.
In early fall, these problems were exacerbated by the rush of retailers to bring in goods for the holidays. Every day in October, container ships in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach pumped out a cumulative 50 tons of nitrogen oxides per day – compared to 30 tons before the pandemic, according to estimates by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Nitrogen oxides are poisonous gases that can damage the lungs themselves and react with volatile organic compounds in the air to form smog.
Container ships were also responsible for half a tonne more particulate pollution per day in October compared to the pre-pandemic average. According to CARB, that’s about as much fine dust as 100,000 diesel trucks would produce. Particulate matter, which may include soot, smoke, or other particles, can damage the heart and lungs and has been linked to health risks that could lead to premature death.
Globally, marine air pollution has been linked to 60,000 premature deaths in a single year. The congestion in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in 2021 is enough to potentially trigger another 30 premature deaths from cardiopulmonary problems, says Michael Benjamin, director of air quality, planning and science at CARB The edge.
Just like the cars, game consoles, clothing, and other goods that come off the ships, pollution is migrating inland. In Southern California, it blows downwind from ships and is trapped in two connected shells in the local geography. This includes a dip in the landscape around the ports, which quickly blends into bustling cities like Long Beach and San Pedro. Long Beach Harbor is right next to the city’s West Side – which has historically been home to immigrant and refugee enclaves, including Latinx, Southeast Asian, and Pacific islanders. Long Beach and Los Angeles collectively top the American Lung Association’s list of the most polluted cities by smog in 2021.
Winds also blow into the nearby Inland Empire, which is in another topographical bowl that captures air pollution from the ports. It’s an area that includes San Bernardino and Riverside counties – two counties that have consistently been rated by the American Lung Association as having the worst smog in the United States. While the region was initially considered an empire of orange groves in the early 20th century, it is now more of an empire of warehouses. Online shopping, which became even more popular during the pandemic, has fueled the explosive growth of warehouses for retailers, including Amazon, the region’s largest private employer.
The supply chain problems have only exacerbated the chronic pollution crisis for these communities. According to a study reviewed for publication by Priyanka deSouza, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver, California census areas with warehouses have significantly lower levels of air pollution compared to similar areas without warehouses. Most of this pollution comes from diesel trucks. At the same time as the recent traffic jams in the ports, CARB also estimates an increase in truck emissions this year – in addition to the additional ship pollution.
The holiday shopping season could exacerbate pollution even further. “This is a time when warehouses are really flooding,” says Joaquin Castillejos, a community organizer for the nonprofit Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), who lives in Bloomington, an unincorporated community in San Bernardino County. “The workers are working to their limits trying to move the goods for the holidays as quickly as possible.”
Before getting the job at CCAEJ, Castillejos worked in a warehouse that sold Adidas shoes. Castillejos may no longer experience the same pollution as when he worked in a warehouse, but now Castillejos is concerned about pollution from a new industrial warehouse and office complex due to be built about two blocks from his home. Bloomington, a Hispanic majority community, already has higher levels of smog and particulate matter than 95 percent of the country’s census areas.
“[The Inland Empire] is one of the biggest warehouse hotspots in the country, and it’s just getting worse [because] More and more warehouses are being built there, ”says deSouza. There was even more demand for storage space during the pandemic as retailers look for more places to store excess inventory in order to meet consumer expectations for fast delivery despite kinks in the supply chain. The worsening pollution crisis in warehouses, says deSouza, underscores the need to electrify trucks.
El-Hasan, the American Lung Association’s pediatrician, is concerned about the disproportionate toll that port and warehouse pollution is taking on the most vulnerable – especially during a coronavirus pandemic to hit the lungs. Lower-income households near warehouses and ports are often more likely to walk or cycle to get around or keep their windows open because they don’t have air conditioning, which he believes could expose them to greater air pollution.
Raids at overseas factories and domestic ports have decreased somewhat in recent weeks, but supply chain problems are expected to persist well into 2022 for people living with port pollution. In mid-October, the Biden administration decided to keep the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach open around the clock, which alerted El-Hasan.
“So that we don’t even get a lull in pollution,” he says. “There will just be pollution, non-stop, day and night, all the time.”