The I-5 freeway cuts through the International District. • Photo by David Lee
The I-5 freeway cuts through the International District. • Photo by David Lee

The following is a message from Puget Sound Clean Air Agency:

How do local decisions over time affect our health and wellbeing today?

That’s one of the many big questions that we at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency are asking ourselves.

Take the Chinatown-International District for instance. The neighborhood has a long and rich history, with immigrants arriving to Seattle from countries across the world. Countless numbers of people with strong ties to the neighborhood have profoundly shaped and influenced Seattle and our region. However, due to decades of unjust and misguided policies dating back to the 1800s, the voices of the Chinatown-International District’s residents and workers have often gone unheard.

Notable land use decisions—from the construction of I-5 in the 1960s (and later I-90) to the siting of Safeco Park and CenturyLink Stadium in the early 2000s—were often made either without community input or despite the community’s objection. The original stadium groundbreaking of the Kingdome in 1972 was fiercely opposed by a group of community activists because it would negatively impact the Chinatown-International District. Not only would it bring more traffic and potential for incidents, but many thought it would lead to the displacement of family businesses and neighborhood residents. Despite their protests, the Kingdome was built anyway, paving the way for both modern stadiums 30 years later.

These decisions have long-term consequences that affect life today in the Chinatown-International District. The construction of the interstate highways displaced residents and businesses and physically split the neighborhood, creating two separate communities. It also assured that residents and visitors alike would likely face air pollution problems.  

Today over 250,000 vehicles (including over 20,000 trucks) pass by the neighborhood on I-5 and I-90 each day. With all those cars and trucks comes pollution that can have serious impacts on human health.

Similarly, more stadium events mean more traffic and parking issues, bringing another form of pollution even closer to home. More local construction projects bring the nearly constant use of diesel equipment and trucks.

We at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency recognize this concern. We are a regional government agency that regulates air quality for the region’s four counties: King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish. Although our air is generally cleaner than other places, like Los Angeles (or even cities in countries such as China or India), there appears to be real disparities in the amount of air pollution in the Seattle area. Certain neighborhoods, often where low-income or communities of color live, have noticeably worse air quality than high-income areas.

The difference in air quality is plain to see. According to hospitalization data, illnesses that are affected by air pollution—like heart attacks, asthma or other breathing problems—are much more common in the Chinatown-International District than the rest of the region. In fact, there are more asthma hospitalizations in the neighborhood than 99% of other Puget Sound communities.

Much of this could be attributed to the fact that nearly a quarter of the neighborhood’s residents are over 65 years old. But since pollution is particularly harmful for our elders, it’s even more important to clean the air to prevent cardiac and respiratory illnesses. Early studies even suggest that air pollution may be linked to mental health issues like dementia and Alzheimer’s, in addition to having neonatal impacts that manifest in young peoples’ health and cognitive functions. Regardless, the science shows that each improvement in air quality, even if it’s small, can provide immediate health benefits.

To this end, we want to look more closely at the neighborhood’s air. Through a federally-funded study, we plan to measure the amount of air toxics—a group of pollutants that can cause cancer and other serious health problems. Ultimately, the study should tell us the likely cancer risk for those who live and work in the area. The results could also give us the information needed to encourage action and investments to clean our air.  

The study will use a several unique tools. Basketball-sized air canisters will soak up chemicals in the air over a specific amount of time. Handheld air monitors will measure pollution on sidewalks and streets, or anywhere there is a concern. All data will be compared to the permanent air monitor at the corner of 10th Avenue and Weller Street.

But we can’t measure everything. Which is why we want to hear from you.

Do you have a family member or friend who deals with breathing problems such as asthma? Do you know where kids play in the neighborhood, especially near the freeway or other busy roads? Maybe you know when a vehicle repeatedly idles outside a residential building; or can identify where smoke is a constant problem? Are there other ways the community should be involved? Your input will largely drive how and where we try to measure the neighborhood’s air.

We understand that many residents may view government institutions warily. We know that government as a whole hasn’t treated the neighborhood’s people with the respect dignity they deserve.

But we are committed to working closely with the Chinatown-International District’s residents, businesses, and visitors to improve health gaps and do our part to amend history’s misguided decisions in any way we can.  

Reach Tania Tam Park or Landon Bosisio of Puget Sound Clean Air Agency at 206-689-4046 or [email protected].

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