Despite a state law that seeks to prevent schools from being built near freeways and mounting evidence that road pollutants harm children's lungs, the Los Angeles Unified School District is in the process of adding seven new schools to the more than 70 already located close to highways.
Last year, more than 60,000 L.A. Unified students attended school within 500 feet of a freeway, records show.
A 2003 state law prohibits school districts from building campuses within 500 feet of a freeway, unless the district can mitigate the pollution or determines that space limitations are so severe that there are no other options. In Los Angeles, officials say their choices have become more and more limited.
As the district undertakes a $20-billion school construction and modernization program, officials have considered a number of sites close to freeways. The district is now building five schools on lots that are within 500 feet of them.
In the coming months, the Board of Education will decide whether to begin construction of two more: Central Region Middle School No. 9 at Euclid Avenue and 7th Street, near Interstate 10, and Central Region High School No. 15, at 2100 Marengo Street, adjacent to the 10 near the interchange with the 5 Freeway. Those campuses are in addition to the nine L.A. Unified charter and regular district schools that have opened near freeways since 1997.
As the construction program continues, the Board of Education could be facing more such decisions.
School board President Monica Garcia, in whose district both pending schools are located, said through a spokesman that she was concerned about children's health, but that she would support the new campuses if the district was able to mitigate the dangers.
Carlos Estrada owns a small market and restaurant across from Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where the district wants to build a high school. It could be a lucrative deal for Estrada, but he's not interested.
Estrada, who grew up in that East Los Angeles-area neighborhood, has nothing against new schools but said he has a big problem with the district building one on this particular site, roughly 90 feet from the 10 Freeway.
"I don't want to be one of those people who went ahead and sold the property because they want the money. My wife and I don't need the money," Estrada said. "I personally don't want a school that's going to harm the health of the children."
Scientists from both UCLA and USC have been studying the health effects of freeway contaminants in recent years and have found that they are significant. A report released in February said that children who live near freeways are more likely to suffer from decreased lung function than those who do not live near them.
One of the main culprits, researchers say, seems to be ultra-fine particles, noxious specks that are so light and tiny that they're hard to capture or filter.
"Ultra-fine particle numbers are highest on and around freeways and in experimental studies appear to have much higher levels of the damaging chemicals that are found to have health effects," said Andre Nel, chief of nanomedicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and co-director of the Southern California Particle Center.
A study by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment found increased asthma and bronchitis among San Francisco Bay Area children who attended schools near major thoroughfares.
The problem is not limited to Los Angeles. According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, 2.3% of California public schools -- about 170 -- are located within 500 feet of high-traffic roads, those that carry more than 50,000 vehicles per day.
The vast majority of the L.A. Unified schools situated within 500 feet of a freeway were constructed before 1977. In some cases, the freeways were built after the schools.
In the two decades that followed, the district built 24 schools, but did not build that close to freeways again until it embarked on its current bond-funded construction program.
Of the schools opened near freeways in the last 10 years, the first was the Watts Learning Center, a high-performing charter. That school opened on the site of a former church near the 110 and is one of five charters built within 500 feet of a freeway in the last decade.
During that time, the district itself has opened four schools that close: Hesby Oaks in Encino; Olympic Primary Center in downtown Los Angeles; West Adams Preparatory High School, just west of downtown; and the Bellevue Primary Center in Silver Lake.
"I think local schools are really, really important, and I believe in public schools," said Marsha Rose, 50, a state vocational rehabilitation counselor who lives near Hesby, a K-8 school. "But I think it's so important for them to have activities that are active and healthy, and I think it's really hard when they build it that close to the freeway."
Hesby was an older school that for several decades was used as administrative offices. In need of classrooms, the district decided to remodel and reopen it as a school. The interchange of the 101 and 405 freeways looms behind the play yard.
At a 2004 public meeting, Rose told district officials that she was worried about the health effects of freeway pollutants on children who would attend the school.
"They said they could override [the law] if there was a need for schools," said Rose, who does not have children. "But I think for the health of all of our children, if you have information, you need to deal with it."
A 2004 district assessment of the Hesby site predicted that at least one contaminant would be present at three times the limit and recommended upgrading the heating and ventilation systems to filter out pollutants. The district made the upgrade.
The assessment did not discuss ultra-fine particles, which cannot be filtered. But state law does not limit the presence of those particles. Nor does it explicitly require that districts address them in health evaluations, officials said.
In addition to the new schools already opened, the district is building five within 500 feet of freeways, campuses that were approved by the board between 2001 and 2006:
* Central Los Angeles High School No. 1 in Hollywood, adjacent to the 101 at the former site of the Metromedia Fox Studio.
* Central Los Angeles High School No. 9, replacing an old high school turned district headquarters at 450 N. Grand Ave. in downtown, off the 101.
* Vista Hermosa, formerly known as Belmont High School, in downtown, off the 110.
* East Valley Area New High School No. 1A and Valley Region Middle School No. 3, on Arleta Avenue, bordering the 170, in Sun Valley.
The district was not required to analyze the effects of air pollution from nearby freeways until the 2003 law took effect. For each of the schools under construction, the district concluded that air filtering would eliminate enough of the toxins to make the school safe for children.
That's partly because, as in the Hesby analysis, the district did not address the ultra-fine particles that researchers believe cause the most harm.
Angelo Bellomo, head of the district's Office of Environmental Health and Safety, which conducts the health studies, said recent scientific reports have prompted him to reassess how his office evaluates sites near freeways. Now, he said, all of the analyses discuss ultra-fine particles.
Because of this, he said, he recently instituted a buffer of at least 200 feet between schools and freeways. He arrived at that figure because a study showed that ultra-fine particles are most prevalent within the first 200 feet from a major roadway.
Bellomo's office's analyses of the two pending schools near freeways indicated that they both suffered from significant pollution and recommended three steps to mitigate damaging effects: air filtering, reduced outdoor activity when air quality is particularly bad and a 200-foot buffer from the freeway.
He concedes that even with those measures, children and school employees still would be exposed to more contaminants than they would otherwise.
He said that if the school board wants to build on the edge of a freeway anyway, it will have to find that the benefits outweigh the health risks.
"It would be very difficult to justify such a finding," Bellomo said. "We are trying to do a better job dissuading the real estate agents from even looking at properties that are close."
Jim Gauderman, the lead researcher on a series of USC studies that found increased asthma and decreased lung function in children who lived near freeways, said science has yet to pinpoint how close to a freeway is too close. But he found significant detrimental effects on children who lived up to 500 meters away -- slightly more than 1,600 feet.
He said air filters are no panacea. "They're not going to work on ultra-fine particles, and they're not going to work on gases," he said. "They're only going to work when the kid is inside. The minute the kid steps out or starts playing P.E. and breathing heavy, they're not going to be useful.
"It just makes sense that if you're going to have children spending a lot of time in a location and you know that location is polluted -- and I don't care if it's air, water or whatever -- that you would try to avoid that situation at any cost," he added. "Those kids are going to be there at four, five, seven years. That's a lot of time when you accumulate it."
The district has not addressed whether to protect the children and staff at the dozens of existing schools that are close to freeways. The schools are clustered in East Los Angeles and the northeast San Fernando Valley, areas with more than their share of both freeways and poverty.
Bellomo said his office is considering what to do about existing schools. The best solution, he said, is stricter regulation of freeway contaminants because it would protect not only the students but also the thousands of residents along those traffic corridors.
When Amalia Campos enrolled 5-year-old Claris Perez at West Vernon Elementary in South Los Angeles this summer, a form asked whether her daughter had any chronic health problems. "Asthma," she wrote.
Campos didn't know about the effects of freeway pollution. No one at the year-round school, which borders the 110 Freeway, told her about the studies, she said. But then, neither did the doctors who diagnosed and have treated Claris' asthma since she was 2.
"They should let parents know about the risk," said Campos.
Claudia Garcia was standing outside the campus recently, waiting to pick up several children whom she cares for after school.
She had heard about the studies regarding the health effects of road toxins.
"The truth is, I wouldn't want my daughter going here because of that. I'd like to find her a better school," she said, looking down at Clara Hernandez, 3. "Maybe I'll move."