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Black Friday is causing toxic traffic jams at US ports and warehouses

Holiday shopping and broken supply chains have made a pollution crisis worse

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Ports Of Los Angeles And Long Beach As Container Glut Eases
The Port of Long Beach in Long Beach, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.
Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As millions of Americans rush to take advantage of Black Friday deals this weekend, the shopping spree will add to a pollution crisis unfolding at America’s ports. For months, broken supply chains have saddled port-side neighborhoods with more pollution than they normally endure. The holiday season will make things even worse. 

The disaster is unfolding in spectacular fashion in Southern California, home to the busiest port complex in the western hemisphere (which includes the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach). Here, cargo ships have piled up offshore as the pandemic wreaks havoc on global supply chains. The traffic jam extends to inland distribution hubs that attract trucks, trains, and planes shuttling goods from warehouses to consumers’ doorsteps. 

The disaster is unfolding in spectacular fashion in Southern California

That all has consequences for people’s health. “We need these things off these ships, I understand that,” says Afif El-Hasan, a pediatrician and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association. “But it’s going to hurt the people around the [areas] these goods come through.” 

There are a lot of factors that wrecked global supply chains, but in short, there was a mismatch in supply and demand. The pandemic shuttered factories. Meanwhile, people started shopping more for home improvement projects and new hobbies they picked up during pandemic-induced lockdowns. In the US, the container ships ferrying those goods from Asia started piling up at ports. During the first three quarters of this year, the movement of containers in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach was nearly 30 percent higher than during the same time period in 2019. By November, container ships were parking outside the Port of Los Angeles for an average of 17 days — more than twice as long as they were towards the start of the year. That has literally led to tons more air pollution in the region because the ships run their auxiliary engines while idling offshore.

By early fall, those problems were compounded by retailers’ rush to haul in goods for the holidays. Each day in October, container ships at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach cumulatively pumped out 50 tons of nitrogen oxides a day — compared with 30 tons before the pandemic, according to estimates by the regulatory agency California Air Resources Board (CARB). Nitrogen oxides are poisonous gases that can do damage to the lungs on their own and that react with volatile organic compounds in the air to produce smog. 

Container ships were also responsible for a half-ton more particle pollution per day in October relative to average pre-pandemic levels. That’s about as much particulate matter as 100 thousand diesel trucks would produce, according to CARB. Particulate matter, which can include soot, smoke, or other particles, can harm the heart and lungs and has been tied to health risks that can lead to premature death. 

Globally, air pollution from maritime shipping has been linked to 60,000 premature deaths in a single year. Congestion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in 2021 is enough to potentially trigger an additional 30 premature deaths from cardiopulmonary problems, Michael Benjamin, chief of the Division of Air Quality, Planning and Science at CARB, tells The Verge.

Pollution travels inland

Just like the cars, game consoles, clothing, and other goods that come off the ships, pollution travels inland. In Southern California, it blows downwind from ships and gets trapped in two connected bowls in the local geography. Those include a dip in the landscape surrounding the ports, which quickly transitions to bustling cities like Long Beach and San Pedro. The Port of Long Beach is nestled right next to the city’s West Side — which has historically been home to immigrant and refugee enclaves, including Latinx, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities. Long Beach and Los Angeles, together, top the American Lung Association’s 2021 list of most smog-polluted cities.

Winds also blow into the nearby “Inland Empire,” which sits in another topographic bowl that traps the ports’ air pollution. It’s an area encompassing San Bernardino and Riverside Counties — two counties consistently ranked with the worst smog in the US by the American Lung Association. While the region was initially considered an empire of orange groves in the early 1900s, today, it’s more like an empire of warehouses. Online shopping, which became even more popular during the pandemic, has fueled the explosive growth of warehouses for retailers, including Amazon, the region’s biggest private-sector employer. 

Visual of warehouse development around the San Bernardino airport in 2005.
San Bernardino airport warehouses
Visual of warehouse development around the San Bernardino airport from 2005 (Left) to 2018 (Right). The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice has a more interactive map of the warehouses surrounding the airport.
Images: CCAEJ / ESRI

The supply chain problems have only worsened a chronic pollution crisis for these communities. Census tracts in California with warehouses have significantly worse air pollution compared to similar areas without warehouses, according to research that’s under review for publication by Priyanka deSouza, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver. Most of that pollution comes from diesel trucks. Coinciding with the recent congestion at the ports, CARB also estimates an uptick in truck emissions this year — on top of the additional ship pollution wafting over.

The holiday shopping season could exacerbate the pollution even further. “This is a time when warehouses are really flooded,” says Joaquin Castillejos, a community organizer for the nonprofit Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) who lives in Bloomington, an unincorporated community in San Bernardino County. “Workers work to their limit because they’re trying to move merchandise as fast as possible for the holidays.”

Before he got the job at CCAEJ, Castillejos worked in a warehouse that distributed Adidas shoes. While he’s not exposed to the same pollution now as he was when he worked at a warehouse, Castillejos is now worried about pollution from a new industrial warehouse and office complex proposed to be built about two blocks from his home. Bloomington, a majority-Hispanic community, already has a higher burden of smog and fine particulate pollution than 95 percent of census tracts in the nation.

“Warehouses are really flooded”

“[The Inland Empire] is one of the biggest warehouse hotspots in the country, and it’s getting worse [because] more and more warehouses are being built there,” says deSouza. There’s been even more demand for warehouse space during the pandemic as retailers look for more places to store excess inventory in order to fulfill consumers’ expectations for fast delivery despite kinks in the supply chain. The worsening pollution crisis at warehouses, deSouza says, underscores the need to electrify trucks.

El-Hasan, the pediatrician with the American Lung Association, is worried about the disproportionate toll that port and warehouse pollution is taking on the most vulnerable — especially during a pandemic of a coronavirus that preys on the lungs. Lower-income households near warehouses and ports are often more likely to walk or bike to get around or keep windows open because they lack air conditioning, which he says could expose them to more air pollution. 

Hold-ups at overseas factories and domestic ports have started to ease up some in the past few weeks, but supply chain woes are expected to persist well into 2022. In a catch-22, even efforts to ease those backlogs could be bad news for people living with port pollution. In mid-October, the Biden Administration moved to keep the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach open 24/7, alarming El-Hasan. 

“So we don’t even get any lulls in the pollution,” he says. “There’s just going to be pollution there, nonstop, day and night, all the time.”