Martha Cota awakened one morning to find her infant son, Jose Miguel, gasping for air, his lips and the skin under his fingernails blue from lack of oxygen. Terrified, she rushed him to her local hospital in Long Beach, Calif., where doctors stabilized the toddler and sent him home with medications to control his fever and an inhaler to help him catch his breath. The cycle went on for more than five years — Jose turning blue and barely able to breathe, Cota frantically strapping him into his car seat and racing through traffic, spending countless days and nights sitting in hospital emergency rooms.
Like so many other kids in their working-class neighborhood not far from Long Beach’s massive port, Jose had severe asthma, and it took doctors years to hit on a regimen that controlled his symptoms. “He could have died at any time,” Cota told me, her eyes brimming with tears, when we conversed one April morning through an interpreter at a coffee shop near her office in Long Beach. “At least once a month, I’d get a call from his school threatening to send me to jail because he was absent so much.”
Tall and attired in an elegant black suit, Cota, who is now in her late 40s, has a long mane of dark hair shot through with auburn highlights and large, expressive eyes. She was a social worker in her native Mexico and now works as a community educator for the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma. When she first discovered that many other women and children in her community were having trouble with respiratory illnesses, she was determined to find out why living downwind of the nation’s largest port complex was making so many people sick.
Even at noon on this otherwise sunny day, the sky was blanketed in hazy toxic smog from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the entry points for more than half of the goods shipped into the United States and the largest source of air pollution in California.
Every day, idling cargo ships carrying 30,000 containers from Asia and the Pacific basin are unloaded by construction cranes towering more than 200 feet high on the docks. Then the containers are dispatched from the rail yards alongside the harbor onto 1,200 diesel-powered freight trains that ferry goods up and down the coast, and 35,000 semi tractor-trailers that speed along heavily congested highways to the rest of the country. Since the 1970s, the massive port complex has exploded to five times its original size, transforming the surrounding area into what one local physician called “an environmental nightmare.”
California may have a reputation as a sun-kissed paradise with some of the world’s most photographed real estate — Southern California’s sparkling white beaches, the celebrated rocky coastline along Big Sur and the epic grandeur of Yosemite and the Sierras. But the reality is that the nation’s most populous state is an industrial colossus — the world’s ninth-largest economy — with the worst air quality in the nation, according to annual report cards issued by the American Lung Association.