ENVIRONmental Health Perspectives,
Volume 114, Number 4, April 2006
G U E S T E D I T O R I A L
Ships, Trucks, and Trains:
Effects of Goods Movement on Environmental Health
A N D R E A M. H R I C K O
Globalization is changing the world in ways that we may not yet fully comprehend. For the United States, the
enactment of new free trade agreements, the downsizing of our manufacturing base, and consumer demand for
inexpensive products are all affecting both jobs and the environment, especially in those regions with ports and
transportation corridors designed to distribute imported goods. The changing dynamics of trade prompted a
journalist to remark last month that the United States "is becoming nothing more than a distribution economy,
importing, moving and selling consumer goods" (Romans 2006).
As this shift in the world and U.S. economies occurs, little attention has been placed on its environmental impacts,
especially the health impacts of air pollution from international trade and "goods movement." As the Focus article
describes in this issue of EHP (Sharma 2006), the volume of imports from Asian countries into the United States
has skyrocketed. The distribution of these goods from their entry ports to the rest of the United States involves
diesel-powered vehicles and equipment every step of the way, creating significant exposures and health impacts
in communities along the distribution routes that are just beginning to be assessed.
For example, a $9.97 doll is made in Asia by low-wage workers under conditions that may subject them to a
myriad of unregulated hazards. This doll is packed with 10,000 others into a container and loaded onto a marine
vessel holding 4,000 other containers carrying dolls, shoes, and electronics. Fueled by low-quality bunker fuel, the
ship leaves one of the world's largest ports in Asia, chugs across the Pacific, discharging nitrogen oxides,
sulfur oxides, particulates, and other pollutants into the earth's environment. Arriving at the Southern California
ports of Los Angeles or Long Beach (where 40% of all U.S. imports arrive), the container is unloaded by longshore
workers, who breathe exhaust from the idling ship as well as emissions from a row of idling trucks with drivers
waiting for their loads. The next leg of the trip is via truck to a rail yard, situated less than one-quarter of a mile
from schools and homes, where the container is placed on a freight train, pulled by a diesel locomotive.
Alternatively, the doll may be placed on a big-rig truck and sent for repackaging to a mega-warehouse 50 miles
from the ports, an area that was formerly all dairy lands that has now given way to million-square-foot
warehouses for consumer goods (drawing thousands of diesel trucks a day into formerly rural communities).
Finally, the doll is trucked to her destination, a big-box retailer in suburban Chicago. By this time, she has
traveled more than 8,000 miles -- on diesel-burning conveyances the whole way.
This itinerary is not unusual for shipping. Today, nearly half of all imported goods sold in Chicago take a route like
this from factories in Asia through Southern California ports before heading east. But the low price a mother in
Chicago pays for her daughter's toy reflects none of the human and environmental tolls (referred to as the
"externalities of transportation") that the doll's manufacture and shipment have taken during its travels.
These include tolls on
~ The world's climate, in terms of emissions that may impact global warming
~ The workers who made the doll in Asia, where occupational health and safety rules are more
lax than in the United States (Wang and Christian 2003) and where wages are a fraction of
~ Dock workers, truck drivers, and railroad workers, who may have elevated rates of lung
cancer (see, for example, Garshick et al. 2004)--the basis for California declaring diesel
particulate a toxic air contaminant in 1998, requiring regulations to reduce risk of
~ Residents in communities adjacent to truck-congested freeways, where elevated levels of
carbon monoxide, diesel constituents, and ultrafine particles have been documented (Zhu et
~ Residents living near ports, in whom there are elevated rates of oropharyngeal cancer and
certain lung cancers, according to an analysis of cancer by census tracts in Los Angeles
County (Mack 2004)
~ Residents who breathe ambient air pollution full of traffic-related pollutants, in whom
there are higher rates of cardiovascular disease and death (Jerrett et al. 2005) and
reduced lung function (Gauderman et al. 2004)
~ Residents who live near rail yards, ports, and other goods movement facilities, who endure
high noise levels, traffic congestion, visual blight, and other community impacts
~ Infrastructure (marine terminals, highways, bridges, rail lines, and rail facilities),
which must be repaired or expanded, often at taxpayers' expense, to keep pace with the
The burden of disease from transporting imported goods longer and longer distances is growing, at both U.S. and
overseas ports. According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the agency that regulates air pollution
Air pollution from international trade and goods movement is a major public health concern
at the statewide, regional and community level. Adverse health impacts from the pollutants
associated with goods movement include but are not limited to premature death, cancer
risk, respiratory illnesses, and increased risk of heart disease . . . . Adverse birth
outcomes, effects on the immune system, multiple respiratory effects, and neurotoxicity
are additional potential health effects. (CARB 2005a)
Also, evidence is growing that low-income, minority communities are disproportionately
Health risk at the community level is of special concern because exposure is highest near
ports, rail yards, and along high volume truck traffic. The Californians who live near
ports, rail yards, and along high traffic corridors, are subsidizing the goods movement
sector with their health. (CARB 2005b)
Surely, one asks, these problems must be solved by strict emission controls on ships, trains, and trucks and the
ports and rail facilities they traverse. Surprisingly, no, say air pollution regulators. According to the South Coast Air
Quality Management District (2005), the agency that regulates air pollution in Southern California, a) more than 90%
of oceangoing vessels calling on U.S. ports are foreign-flagged, with emissions covered by weak International
Maritime Organization standards and no U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) controls; b) federal
emission rules for locomotives are more lenient than for other emission sources, and new U.S. EPA rules have not
yet been issued; c) emission rules for trucks are in effect, but some old truck engines will be on the road for
decades; and d) although some ports are working on new emission control programs, ports continue to be
sources of large and growing quantities of emissions.
This situation calls out for stricter local, state, national, and international rules to protect workers and residents
from the health effects of air pollution. It also calls for more epidemiologic and exposure assessment studies, as
well as sophisticated cost-benefit analyses, of the impact that promotion of international trade and goods
movement is having on residents' and workers' health -- and whether being a "distribution economy" is the best
strategy for the U.S. economic future [see, for example, economic questions raised by Haveman and Hummels
Such an analysis would need to include a) externalized health costs of air pollution, including all health endpoints;
b) the cost of loss of manufacturing jobs and benefits of goods movement jobs; and c) other community impacts
(noise, aesthetics, traffic congestion, accidents, and costs of expanding infrastructure to handle rising imports).
The issue of international trade, ports, and goods movement lies at the intersection of globalization, economics,
transportation, land use planning, sustainability, and health. An environmental health research funding partnership
could help bring these diverse interests together as a means of documenting health impacts and searching for
public health solutions. Such an innovative effort could be led by the National Institute of Environmental Health
Sciences (NIEHS) and involve, at least, the U.S. EPA, the Department of Transportation (including its Federal
Highway, Federal Railway, and Maritime Administrations), the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor,
the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Transportation Research Board of the National
Finally, as transportation and elected officials around the country call for expanding the nation's infrastructure
(ports, marine terminals, highways, rail lines, and facilities) to promote growth in international trade, there is an
urgent need -- and a challenge -- for "health" to become a more central part of the policy discussion.
The author declares she has no competing financial interests.
Andrea M. Hricko
Keck School of Medicine University of Southern
California Los Angeles,
California E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrea Hricko is an associate professor of preventive medicine, Keck School of Medicine,
University of Southern California (USC), and director of community outreach and education
at the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center, funded by the NIEHS. The
center's scientists (from USC and the University of California, Los Angeles) and outreach
program focus significant attention on the health impacts of port and goods
movement-related air pollution.
CARB. 2005a. Public health impacts. In: Draft Emission Reduction Plan for Ports and
International Goods Movement. Sacramento, CA:California Air Resources Board, I-1-I-8.
Available: http://www.arb.ca.gov/planning/gmerp/dec1plan/chapter1.pdf [accessed 17 March
CARB. 2005b. Emission reduction strategies. In: Draft Emission Reduction Plan for Ports
and International Goods Movement. Sacramento, CA:California Air Resources Board,
III-1-III-60. http://www.arb.ca.gov/planning/gmerp/dec1plan/chapter3.pdf [accessed 17
Garshick E, Laden F, Hart JE, Rosner B, Smith TJ, Dockery DW, et al. 2004. Lung cancer in
railroad workers exposed to diesel exhaust. Environ Health Perspect. 112: 1539-1543.
Gauderman WJ, Avol E, Gilliland F, Vora H, Thomas D, Berhane K, et al. 2004. The effect of
air pollution on lung development from 10 to 18 years of age. N Engl J Med
Haveman JD, Hummels D. 2004. California's Global Gateways: Trends and Issues. San
Francisco:Public Policy Institute of California. Available:
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_404JHR.pdf [accessed 17 March 2006].
Jerrett M, Burnett RT, Ma R, Pope CA III, Krewski D, Newbold KB, et al. 2005. Spatial
analysis of air pollution and mortality in Los Angeles. Epidemiology 16(6): 727-736.
Mack T. 2004. Cancers in the Urban Environment. San Diego, CA:Elsevier Press.
Romans C. 2006. New Bill Aims to Improve Port Security. Lou Dobbs Tonight, 14 March 2006.
Available: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0603/14/ldt.01.html [accessed 17 March
Sharma DC. 2006. Ports in a storm. Environ Health Perspect 114:A222-A231.
South Coast Air Quality Management District. 2005. Clean Port Initiative Workplan. Diamond
Bar, CA: South Coast Air Quality Management District. Available:
http://aqmd.gov/news1/2006/clean_port_workplan.pdf [accessed 17 March 2006].
Wang XR, Christian DC. 2003. Occupational lung disease in China. Int J Occup Environ
Health 9(4): 320-325.
Zhu Z, Hinds WC, Kim S, Shen S, Sioutas C. 2002. Study of ultrafine particles near a major
highway with heavy-duty diesel traffic. Atmos Environ 36:4323-4335.
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