Access is everything, highway access, that is. If you live anywhere within a sixty mile radius of Los Angeles, having quick and easy access to a highway is essential, especially for a city that doesn’t have a singular, broad range, mass transportation network like the subway in New York. Naturally, this causes people to seek out housing with easy access to a highway. Real estate agents and rental managers regularly use proximity to the highway as a selling feature. While noise can certainly be a factor, living near highways comes with health related risks too, but no one ever seems to ask how close is too close.
The Los Angeles Department of City Planning is in the process of building ten new low-income affordable housing properties across the region. The construction is part of a larger effort to stem the housing crisis and help the homeless, mostly veterans in this case, get off the streets. While those are honorable goals, the problem is that the inhabitants of those apartments may end up exchanging one problem for another.
According to reports, one in four of the 2,000 low-income housing units built by the Department of City Planning in recent years were less than 1,000 feet from a highway. Ten housing projects sit less than 500 feet from a highway with several others less than 100 feet away. This practice is also common in the Bay Area and Central Valley.
Supporters of backing low-income apartment buildings up to highways say they must do so in order for residents to be able to take advantage of nearby bus and rail lines. While not mentioned directly by city officials, it also stands to reason that as part of the $1.2 billion plan to build 10,000 apartments for the homeless, that land next to highway on-ramps is much cheaper to build on. At the same time, the city won’t face any protests from neighbors who don’t want major construction and more congestion in their quieter neighborhoods further away.
Unfortunately, what often begins as a financial savings ends in a loss of health. Raising the alarm has been health scientists pointing to decades of research that links roadway pollution to a growing list of illnesses, including asthma and damaging lung development in children, neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, among others. I can personally tell you this is true because my master’s thesis in electrochemistry was to examine the lead content in the fingernails of children living near highways. Results showed they had substantially higher levels of lead and suffered from some of the effects of lead toxicity.
Supporters of these construction projects say the benefits outweigh the risks, even as media reports show some veterans are reluctant to live so close to the highway. Health professionals are saying the anti-air pollution design features of the properties like sound walls, vegetation barriers, and air filters that remove some of the harmful particulate of auto exhaust aren’t enough to mitigate a significant amount of the risk, and that their effectiveness to do so has never been tested.
While well-intentioned, the city’s effort to help the homeless off the streets seems to be a prime example of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, especially since research consistently shows living near highways is harmful to health. It also serves as a reminder for us to ask ourselves what kinds of behaviors or thoughts we are repeatedly engaging in that are harming our health, especially when we know better, too.
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to live at least 1,500 ft. away from the nearest highway. This is slightly greater than ¼ mile (1,320 ft). At this distance, the highway is still conveniently close without experiencing the health risks that come from car exhaust.
If you currently live near the highway, make sure your doors and windows seal as tightly as possible and consider taping the seams of windows that face the highway. Getting the best air filter machine you can afford for the living room and bedrooms is important, as well.
For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit beingclarity.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.