Left: CSUN Environmental and Occupational Health faculty, Nola Kennedy and Rania Sabty-Daily
Concern about air quality near freeways has a long-standing history, especially in the Los Angeles area, and yet, many of our homes, businesses and schools are located right beside them. People tend to respond in a variety of ways: Some choose to live, work, or build elsewhere. Some settle-in with the idea that it must not be that bad, or no one would build there. And others know there are health risks but may have little to no choice over where to work or send their children to school so they take it a day at a time and hope for the best. Then there are those who bring about positive change.
El Marino Language Elementary School in Culver City is within 500 feet of one of the busiest segments of the 405 Freeway, the busiest freeway in the nation.. It is also rated as one of the top elementary schools in California. Today, it is a Green Ribbon school for clean air in classrooms. At the end of 2017, the Culver City Unified School District was awarded a Certificate of Recognition from Congress for this accomplishment. And yet, seven years ago, air quality at the school was a danger to the health of the children in the school. What changed?
The heroes in this story are parents, teachers and community members who took ownership of their environment. And this is also a story of what happens when some of the parents happen to be two of CSUN HHD’s Environmental and Occupational Health faculty, Rania Sabty-Daily and Nola Kennedy.
The two met in graduate school at UCLA and became friends over 20 years ago. With their families’ lives running parallel, they each had children attending the public school near their homes, El Marino Language Elementary school. Sabty-Daily and Kennedy hold graduate degrees from UCLA; they both have PhDs in Environmental Health Science, Sabty-Daily has her Master of Public Health in Industrial Hygiene, Kennedy has a Master of Science in Environmental Health Science.
In addition to being an expert in the study of Environmental Health Science, Sabty-Daily had developed asthma as a teenager, which may have been caused by growing up in a home where she was heavily exposed to second-hand smoke. She is particularly aware of the dangers of particulate matter in the air, and she is keenly aware of its effect on children’s developing lungs.
As their careers advanced, each came to CSUN to serve on the EOH faculty. Sabty-Daily had witnessed children struggling with asthma, including some of her own children. She knew she needed to take action. But it wasn’t just her own children she was concerned about--she wanted to use her expertise to help all the 850 children—as well as everyone else—in the school. She looked to the freeway and realized the time was now. She founded Advocates 4 Clean Air El Marino, an advocacy group that consisted of parents and teachers, to engage the community in identifying the issues, finding solutions and implementing change.
Sabty-Daily and Kennedy met over coffee to discuss their options, and brought their expertise to the Advocates 4 Clean Air. Some felt that the sound wall along the freeway should be enough to block out the particulate matter and bad air, but Sabty-Daily and Kennedy knew better. They took a colder, harder look at that sound wall, just a short distance from the field where the children played, and set out to engage the community in researching and discovering solutions.
“And it was research that led to evidence-based action,” Kennedy said. “What we did was provide the community with a way to engage in understanding how freeway air pollution was a potential risk to children attending the school and identifying potential solutions.” Sabty-Daily and Kennedy had no funding to keep the project moving full time. This work was independent of their roles as faculty at CSUN. It was simply two concerned mothers bringing their professional expertise, and a lot of heart, to a public health cause. The group made the time to meet regularly and move the project forward, even if by inches.
“We started at a kitchen table,” Sabty-Daily said. “At the beginning it was a few of us, parents and teachers, talking about what we could do to change the short and long term health outlook for the children in the school.” The school had a history of attempts at making improvements, but no successful inroads had yet been made. Sabty-Daily came to the table with experience in community engagement for environmental health issues. She knew how to facilitate and help groups identify and prioritize problems and solutions. Kennedy’s expertise in industrial hygiene meant she understood how to create healthful conditions in not-so-healthy environments. Both had knowledge and expertise in measuring and evaluating airborne pollutants.
Within a short time Sabty-Daily and Kennedy called upon colleagues and friends at UCLA, USC and the South Coast Air Quality Management District and measured air pollutants at the school with the help of parents and teachers. Not the types to jump to conclusions, they set out to learn just how much of a protection that sound wall could possibly be. The answer was: none. Air flows up and over, and then down. The tests also found that ultrafine particles, which are directly emitted by vehicles on the freeway, were prevalent in the classrooms. While they could not do anything about the quality of the air outdoors, they knew they could affect indoor air quality to a large degree—about 92%, to be precise—through air filtration systems.
Together, the group looked at approaches other schools had taken. Sabty-Daily brought science to inform. Kennedy began preparing sample plans of action to review and revise. As more campus community members took the cause to heart, a groundswell of activism took hold. “Ownership of a cause is what makes people take action,” Kennedy said. “The families of these students saw this issue not as something to be solved by someone else – they already knew nothing was happening—they let it become their issue.”
The initial goal was to get a meeting with the school board to present their research, and propose solutions. “When we met with the school board, because we presented evidence-based research, they were in synch with us almost right away – because our argument was based on solid science, we were able to present without overwhelming the board,” Kennedy said. Sabty-Daily added, "The role of the community group was critical; they enriched the process of collecting data, analyzing the data, interpreting results and finding the best way to present findings to the school board."
The greater objective: increase awareness, change behaviors where possible, and improve the air quality in the classrooms. An easy change was to teach the school administrators about the preferred times for students to engage in activity outdoors, and warn about days when air quality was too poor for outside activity.
Sabty-Daily and Kennedy brought relevant literature that showed the research, the scenario, how it really does matter which way the wind blows, and when. “Engaging the community for improving environmental health is an iterative research process that leads to relevant and sustainable action,” Sabty-Daily said. “The process builds the case from the ground up; the more the community knows, the more approaches they find to convey their needs, the better they are able to formulate solutions, to demand that policy makers address their needs and to create change. Our role as scholars and researchers is to facilitate engagement, provide guidance and give support.”
The group got to meet with school district administrators. The group then made a presentation to the school board and reported their findings and the evidence-based research that showed how air pollution from the freeway was a potential risk for the health of children at the school—on their lungs, brains and overall development. “And since children’s lungs are still developing, particulate matter and vehicle-exhaust fumes can do more damage to them than it does to adults,” Sabty-Daily said. “So there is a greater sense of urgency to find solutions.”
“The school board listened and said our case was indisputable,” Sabty-Daily said.
By the time their children completed their education at El Marino, the cause was still moving through channels toward completion, but the solution was not yet in place. Though it took six years of persistence, persuasion and determination from parents and teachers, the work paid off. The group got a bond measure onto the Culver City ballot to include funding for air filtration systems in El Marino, the school located near the 405 freeway. The voters agreed and the bond carried.
The Culver City school district stepped up to pay for installation, hardware was donated, and the school got $ 1.7 million worth of air filtration. By summer 2016, the project was nearly completed,. “The MERV 16 Air filters take 94% of ultrafine particulate pollutants out of the air,” Sabty-Daily said. “They’re the best out there, and they have been installed in all classrooms. But, since there is no air conditioning at the school, the windows and doors cannot remain shut all the time and children breathed filtered air only sometimes.” It took another year to bring the project to completion. In summer 2017, HVAC systems were added to the existing infrastructure at the school, to bring air conditioning air and heat into the classrooms. "Now the doors and windows can remain shut and the air filtration systems can operate at optimal efficiency, thus providing clean air to the children, when they are indoors", Sabty-Daily added.
Kennedy and Sabty-Daily are hoping that one day, outdoor air quality can be monitored, to look for pollution spikes and enable the school to protect the most vulnerable and keep them indoors when necessary.
And though Kennedy’s daughters and Sabty-Daily’s sons are older now and no longer attending El Marino, the 850 children in the school now, and the children yet to attend, have the community and its engagement to thank for their improved health outlook.
Today, California has guidelines to avoid building schools close to freeways. “It is important that we don’t lose the ground we have worked so hard to attain,” Sabty-Daily said, “For example, the EPA had a program to help schools and businesses replace old diesel trucks and school busses with cleaner air vehicles. That funding period closed at the end of 2017. With the current presidential administration threatening cuts to EPA funding, we could lose ground. Our contribution to creating healthier environments by engaging with communities, particularly those that are underserved and underrepresented, has never been more relevant and more necessary for protecting human health."
“This underscores the fact that is it important for communities to get involved in advocating for their own health, and the health of their children,” Kennedy added.
Learn more about this project (these links are not CSUN):
School Haze, NPR (on Soundcloud)
Jean O'Sullivan (story and photo)