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