In summary

As a doctor treating patients suffering the effects of toxic pollution, I’m calling on California officials to address this public health crisis.

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By Saba Malik, Special to CalMatters

Dr. Saba Malik is a senior family medicine resident at Harbor UCLA Medical Center,

Every morning, I drive to the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center on a clogged stretch of the 710 Freeway that overlooks the diesel-choked Port of Long Beach. The road cuts beneath the shadows of the Marathon and Valero oil refineries, their smokestacks belching toxic benzene. Pumpjacks bob near the highway off-ramp.

Most of the patients I see live at the intersection of these inauspicious landmarks, in the corridor of working-class Wilmington, Los Angeles – home to some of the worst air pollution in the country. Many live steps from an oil well.

The people I treat, many of them poor, speaking little or no English, come to the clinic with lungs wheezing, feet ulcerated from late-stage diabetes. Their maladies vary but they share a common bond – they are neighbors to toxic pollution. Last year, they suffered more than ever.

The global pandemic only sharpened a divide the medical community has seen up close for years – the chasm separating the health outcomes of low-income communities and Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander communities from wealthier folks. Years of contaminated air and water weaken the body’s foundation. For many, COVID-19 was simply the final blow.

As physicians, we understand the loss of life due to COVID-19 as a sadness years in the making. Catastrophic health outcomes due to oil and gas production do not always occur overnight. But the science is clear: in study after study, we see undeniable correlations between the pollutants that choke the Wilmington air and the headaches, asthma and cancer in my clinic every day. 

Something must change. 

For my community, there is hope: at a December meeting of the City Council of Los Angeles, the Environment, Climate Change and Environmental Justice Committee voted unanimously to draft an ordinance declaring oil and gas extraction sites “non-conforming land uses.” The road ahead is long, but make no mistake – this is a meaningful step toward lessening the deadly impacts of fossil fuel extraction in Los Angeles.

Sadly, that same hope doesn’t exist everywhere in California. 

That’s why it’s essential that the state of California issues a 2,500-foot safety zone between oil and gas extraction sites and the areas where we live, work and play. The distance is non-negotiable – in fact, the science tells us that 2,500 feet is the bare minimum to protect against preterm birth complications.

Last year, the setback measure gained momentum in Sacramento with a precedent-setting bill, Assembly Bill 345, introduced by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrence. For a moment, it seemed that legislators were ready to act for environmental justice.

But as my colleagues and I fought to save lives, legislators killed the bill in committee.  

This year California has another chance to protect the health of its most impacted residents. Senate Bill 467, introduced by Sens. Scott Wiener and Monique Limón, will create 2,500-foot setbacks between homes, schools and dangerous oil and gas wells, while banning dangerous hydraulic fracking practices.

Opportunities like these don’t often knock twice. This time, our state representatives must open the door to change. 

As physicians, decision-makers and community members, it is time to treat the health of Black, Brown and low-income residents – not just with breathable air, drinkable water and setbacks that protect children from pollution – but with a plan. 

Some of the folks I see in my clinic work for the same polluters that get them sick. For months, I have heard politicians refer to my patients’ work as essential. It’s time to treat their health as essential as well.

As a doctor working on the frontlines of one of the most polluted corridors of California, I’m calling on our public officials, from the L.A. City Council to the California Legislature, to address the longstanding public health crisis in our state.

To start to heal, protecting the most vulnerable is the first prescription.

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