IV. Short of breath: Living with pollution
Lala Mann has lived all over East Oakland and surrounding areas. She grew up in “Funktown,” a neighborhood close to Lake Merritt, near Highland Hospital. She has lived in San Leandro, San Lorenzo and Dublin, all cities just outside of East Oakland. And now she lives in Castlemont, and she does not plan on raising her 15-month old daughter here, she says.
“As you get deeper into East Oakland, it’s more and more deserted as far as what you need as a human being,” Mann says. “It really sucks.”
When she compares her experience in a place like Dublin to East Oakland, her description is stark: Dublin is cleaner, she says, with nice houses, grocery stores and parks. “You have everything you need right there. This place is a dump in comparison,” she says, referring to Castlemont.
Mann says that even Funktown was better than Castlemont, because it was closer to the Grand Lake neighborhood and downtown Oakland. The life expectancy at birth in the Funktown area is 78 years, four years longer than someone born in Castlemont, but still shorter than someone in Piedmont.
“It’s sad to say, but if I lived in Berkeley, if I lived in Piedmont, then my health would be a lot better,” says Mann. “But I didn’t get that luxury.”
The residents of East Oakland inhale some of the most polluted air in the Bay Area.
High blood pressure and diabetes run in her family, she says, as does asthma. Mann and her father both suffer from asthma attacks, especially on smoggy days in East Oakland.
A recent statewide map called CalEnviroScreen shows that nine of California’s most polluted communities are in the Bay Area, identifying cities like Richmond and areas like East Oakland in the top five percent. The map used data from various sources to identify ZIP codes with schools and neighborhoods near freeway interchanges, dirtier air and more hazardous waste facilities and factories.
All Bay Area residents are exposed to high levels of air pollution, but “poor people and people of color are much more likely than Whites and those with higher incomes to live in close proximity to areas with high levels of air pollution,” says the Alameda County health department report, “Life and Death from Unnatural Causes.”
The residents of East Oakland inhale some of the most polluted air in the Bay Area, which makes them more likely to develop asthma and other respiratory problems.
Rates of asthma for African-American children in Alameda County are 2.5 times higher than the overall rate in the county.Alameda County Public Health Department
See more interactive maps of data here.
The rate of emergency room visits for asthma in East Oakland is far higher than the state average—for every 10,000 visits, about 130 in East Oakland are due to asthma. The state average is 48, and in Piedmont the rate is less than 40. This suggests that more people in East Oakland have severe or poorly managed asthma. Long-term exposure to air pollution can also put people at risk of lung cancer, says the county health department report.
“There are all these factories and stuff,” Mann says about the deep east. “You don’t see a bunch of polluting things packed into one place in many other neighborhoods.”
But there is also high pollution in West Oakland, where 20,000-plus residents live between three major highways, the port and the Union Pacific Rail Yard. Asthma rates are just as high here as they are in East Oakland. Like the deep east, West Oakland is low-income, and while East Oakland is majority Latino, more than half of residents here are African-American.
According to statistics from the Alameda County Public Health Department, rates of asthma among African-American children in Alameda County are 2.5 times higher than the overall rate in the county.
“The percentage of non-white residents, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, is greatest within one mile of a toxic release facility,” says the report. In Alameda County, 71 percent of the population living within one mile of a toxic facility is not white. Farther from these pollution sources, the population gets whiter, and wealthier.
“For multiple reasons, people who live there may be more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution,” says John Balmes, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental health. Other factors that can lead to the development of asthma and other respiratory illnesses are generally found in low-income communities, such as a poor diet, exposure to tobacco smoke and less access to health care. These can all worsen the effects of air pollution already present in high levels in East and West Oakland, says Balmes, who also serves on the California Air Resources Board (CARB).
In general, the report says, “economically disadvantaged people, many of whom are people of color, are more likely than wealthy people or White people to live close to busy freeways, ports and commercial sources of pollution.”
"If I lived in Berkeley, if I lived in Piedmont, then my health would be a lot better."
For Mann, the connection between health, wealth and race is infuriating. “I shouldn’t have to leave my home to be a healthier person,” she says. “It pisses me off. The more you see, you realize that our challenges are a result of the way things are set up in our neighborhood, compared to other neighborhoods.”
Brandon Robbins, another Castlemont resident, grew up in West Oakland and bounced between a few neighborhoods. He and his siblings all have health problems like asthma that “probably come from living in West Oakland,” he says. But he and his family can’t get away from the unhealthy environments of East and West Oakland. Though they have moved between the two areas, they have never been able to move to Piedmont or other neighborhoods in Oakland where they might lead healthier lives.
“It always comes down to financials,” Robbins says. “It’s unaffordable to live in a better neighborhood, that’s pretty much what it is.”
The Bay Area has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. The price difference of living in an area like Piedmont versus East Oakland is vast. The median housing price in Piedmont is about $650,000, more than three times what someone would probably pay in Castlemont. More than half of Castlemont residents already spend at least a third of their income on rent, according to a Youth Uprising report, and the median household income is less than $33,500 a year.
Both East and West Oakland residents face the same health problems. But it’s unaffordable to live in a better neighborhood.Brandon Robbins, West Oakland resident
See more interactive maps of data here.
“The super high cost of living here makes it harder to afford a house in a better neighborhood,” says Amy Smith, program manager for the Bay Area Health Inequities Initiative, a partnership between nine counties working on regional health issues.
But Mann doesn’t want to live in Piedmont or Berkeley. Oakland is her home. While she doesn’t want to stay in Castlemont with the neighborhood in its current state, she says she would love to see Castlemont become a safer, more vibrant community. Mann is a coordinator at Youth Uprising, working to develop the neighborhood and offer residents more resources where they currently live, rather than simply giving them the means to move away.
She says she works at the center so that someday, she could consider raising her children in Castlemont. “I’m lucky that I can go live in some other place, but what about the other people?” Mann says. “That’s why East Oakland needs to be transformed into a better community. It can be, and it should be.”