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Op-ed: Civic Center SMART Station Plan Raises Health Concerns

One Patch reader says the "vision" for new housing near the Civic Center SMART train station could cause some long-term health issues.

As a physician living in the half-mile zone impacted by the newly accepted Civic Center Station Area Plan, I found myself recalling much that I learned at Emory Medical School's Community Health and Epidemiology lectures given by staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC-P). I never realized that what I would be taught then would apply so close to home here in North San Rafael.

As a clinician with experience in preventive medicine, and who also is a member of the local community, I feel a duty to inform, educate and advise when a proposal is made that might jeopardize the public’s health. I feel an obligation to prevent the foreseeable adverse health effects associated with the SMART train’s Civic Center area housing plan. This "vision" was recently approved by the San Rafael City Council. Dismissed by several city council members and the mayor as a vision, yet a plan for action by staff and the planning committee, the new Civic Center Station Area Plan places 620 new homes, many within 500 feet of Highway 101.

It seemed reasonable to imagine that the plan - that had been conceived by an advisory committee over two years, would make health an important consideration. However it would appear from the resulting plan that the overriding goals were to implement "transit oriented development" to help justify SMART train ridership and secure federal and state funding to prop up questionable financial viability. In the first chapter of the Civic Station Area Plan it states: “The Plan’s ultimate goal is supporting ridership on the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) system."

As a basic tenet of public health , one identifies risk factors causing or contributing to human diseases. Then one seeks to mitigate those risk factors to reduce future disease burden on an individual or a community. The Civic Center Station Area Planning Advisory Committee, in identifying future development areas along side Highway 101, overlooked the known hazards of breathing toxic pollutants from engine exhausts from buses, cars and trucks.

A quick Google search of words such as "traffic,” "pollutants,” "health and highways" produce many reports from reputable universities and institutions that delineate serious concerns and known effects of traffic exhaust on human health. Some of the strongest scientific-backed information states clearly that children and adults are at greatly increased risk of respiratory illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease when they live within 500 feet of major roadways.
 
Most recently, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) in June 2012 issued a statement relating diesel exhaust exposure to causing lung cancer (among several other types of cancer) . The National Toxicology Program has classified exposure to diesel exhaust particulates as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified Diesel exhaust as "likely carcinogenic to humans."  In order to be proactive and to reduce one's exposure risk, the American Cancer Society has stated on their website that they recommend to reduce cancer risk that "you can avoid spending time near large sources of diesel exhaust, such as near trucks and buses." 

A study conducted in 2010 reported that living within 1,000 feet of a freeway increases the risk of autism by a factor of 1.8 (the "CHARGE" study). Statistically, living 1,000 feet and beyond from a major highway appears to be a line of lower risk delineation from traffic pollutants based on  studies that have correlated distance exposure data  to health outcomes and disease prevalence.

As a health professional it seems most pertinent to enlighten the San Rafael City Council, who on Aug. 20 accepted the advisory committee’s recommendations that there appears to be no due diligence on the serious health effects on highway related pollutants for the people who end up living in the plan's proposed high density housing - much of which is less than 500 feet from a freeway.
 
The result is a financial lose-lose situation for the city of San Rafael and/or Marin County who will have to pay much of the healthcare and disability costs from the pollutant-related disorders of those people who live in these high risk zones. Measuring such adverse impact in dollars seems almost inconsiderate, more so when this is not only foreseeable but avoidable.

As a doctor I had expected that a Community Environmental Health Assessment (CEHA) analysis would have been incorporated into the station area plan when site selection was being assessed. Thankfully it is not too late for Mayor Phillips and the City Council to act and mandate closer scrutiny of these residential sites of concern. You don’t have to be a physician like me to be a public health advocate. In identifying safer and better locations to build residential housing for future homeowners, I would hope our elected officials would apply the “Do No Harm” philosophy - protecting the future citizens of Marin County and their children.

Jonathan Artz, MD

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Richard Hall September 04, 2012 at 01:43 PM
This raises the question - what did the plan give greater weight to: justifying SMART ridership, zoning enough new affordable housing to secure sizable MTC and ABAG grants, or ensuring that the new residents of the affordable housing would not be put in harms way next to a freeway overpass generating significant public health issues?
LA Bernick September 04, 2012 at 05:43 PM
This causes great concern. It is so common for planners not to include any type of physical health assessment into their developer backed plans, there is sadly no surprise. And no one who makes the decisions will EVER be the one's living in crowded, high density highway right next to a freeway with this toxic exposure and with this kind of noise. Wonder why that is???? Because a train that ran many years ago is "cheap" to run off the same rails, nothing in Measure Q mentioned ANYTHING about increasing housing in an already populated, traffic congested Civic Center corridor. How much more do these planner think they can jam in here? You going to smash down commerical offices where jobs are to put up housing when there are apartments everywhere around here with for lease signs? And where are those Marin jobs? The majority of folks here have to commute because there are NO JOBS in this county that pay well, or very few. Why else would people be running off to the city and East Bay?
Ryan Ricco-Pena September 04, 2012 at 10:49 PM
So Johnathon, when are you going to move away to spare your lungs? The 'dirty air' is okay enough for you and your exclusive neighbors but if anyone with a blue collar job tries to move in the air is suddenly made out to be a 'public health hazard' . Gimme a break. I'm so tired of all these spoiled NIMBY-heads!
marin September 05, 2012 at 03:40 AM
After doing some research I came across California Senta Bill 352. Basically it states that no school should be built within 500 feet of a freeway. If California in all of its wisdom will not allow a school to be built near a freeway due to pollution, then how can the city of San Rafael approve a "vision" plan that places hgih density, low income housing next (within 500 feet) of a freeway. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=200320040SB352 On the face of it, it would appear that placing high density low income housing next to a freeway will have a negative health impact on the people least able to afford extra medical coverage. "According to a study that will appear in the February 17 issue of The Lancet and now available online, researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) found that children who lived within 500 meters of a freeway, or approximately a third of a mile, since age 10 had substantial deficits in lung function by the age of 18 years, compared to children living at least 1500 meters, or approximately one mile, away." - http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070125185843.htm It is clear that the Civic Center "vision" is less a responsible housing proposal and more an attempt to ramrod housing where it should never be built.
Closet Conservative September 05, 2012 at 04:14 AM
Nothing more that ABAG's Preferred Land Use and Transportation Investment Strategy. This is the Progressive master plan. Too bad, they do know what is best-! If you have time, you should try to familarize yourself with the presentation that was made to MTC-ABAG on May 11. You can see the plan here They identified 4 goals (page 8-11, slides 4-7) Goal 1: Create jobs to maintain and sustain a prosperous and equitable economy Goal 2: Increase the amount, accessibility, affordability, and diversit of housing Goal 3: Create a network of complete communities Goal 4: Protect the region's unique natural environment If you look on page 13 (slide 11) entitled "What We Heard", you will find these main points (Notice that "what they heard" was what they wanted to hear. They completely ignored the public input where people disagreed)
Richard Hall September 05, 2012 at 01:57 PM
"They completely ignored the public input where people disagreed" - I see a pattern forming here.
LA Bernick September 15, 2012 at 02:34 AM
@Ryan, you are missing the point of the entire article. It is NOT okay for those "blue collars" or anyone else to be dumped next to a known toxic situation. The doctor and others are proposing new PLACEMENT of the housing further away so that folks can be safe. Are you familiar with the history of this country of what class of citizens are always placed next to toxic wastelands, from 3 mile island to every Indian reservation in this country???? Everyone deserves to live free of chemical problems is the point here, see the comment below as well. It's okay for blue collar worker homes, but not their children's schools?
carla hudson October 09, 2012 at 07:14 PM
There are people living within 50 yards and less from the tracks in mobile homes on the Las Gallinas Marsh, in Contempo Marin. Many are older, some with COPD. Talk about health hazard? Breathing diesel exhaust?!

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