Environmental barrier gives students at one Oakland school a chance at fresh air

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The most common reason students miss school is lack of transportation, said Nathalie Umaña, the community school manager at Brookfield Elementary School in East Oakland. Second reason? Complications from asthma.

“There have been quite a few kids where we notice that they are having attendance issues and we talk to their parents and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s got asthma,’” Umaña said.

She spoke from the edge of a vast blacktop stretching out from the back of Brookfield, dotted with two playground sets and two rows of basketball hoops. A massive gray sound wall was behind her. On the other side of the wall, cars, motorcycles and freight trucks sped past on I-880, one of the busiest highways in the Bay Area.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with the help of several Bay Area-based organizations, is attempting to reduce the traffic-related air pollution at the school by installing a vegetation barrier between the blacktop and the gray wall. The barrier, installed in January, is a thick pathway of mulch and dirt with plants and trees growing out of it. The vegetation is sparse now, but the aim is for the branches and leaves to grow tall and thick enough to dilute the polluted air and remove carbon-based or metallic particles and carbon monoxide from the air.

Several studies have shown that plants and trees with needles or leaves that don’t shed, like evergreens, are able to suck carbon monoxide out of the air through their leaves. The vegetation also filters some of the airborne particles by catching them on their branches and leaves.

“Essentially, what we have found is that you can get a reduction of about 20 percent to about 50 percent of carbon monoxide when you have foliage on trees,” said Andrey Khlystov, the director of the Organic Analytical Laboratory at the Reno-based Desert Research Institute, which studies climate change and technologies used to measure or combat it.

Khlystov is a co-author on the study “The Effects of Vegetation Barriers on Near-Road Ultrafine Particle Number and Carbon Monoxide Concentrations,” which was published in Science of the Total Environment in 2016 and examined how vegetation absorbs and filters air pollution. According to the study, vegetation barriers can filter about 38 percent to 64 percent of particles and absorb about 24 percent to 56 percent of carbon monoxide from the air.

The study, which began in 2006, was also supported by researchers from the EPA, including Richard Baldauf, a senior research engineer at the agency and a project lead on the vegetation barrier at Brookfield.

Brookfield’s vegetation barrier is one of 10 site studies around the country being used by the EPA to study environmental and human health problems, according to the agency’s website on the studies. The EPA will provide sensors to Brookfield and teachers and students at the school, residents in the surrounding community and members of community organizations to monitor air quality as the plants grow, according to a press release about the vegetation barrier. Some of the air quality monitors will be installed around the school and others will be used for mobile sampling, according to Michele Huitric, a press officer with the EPA.

“EPA encourages the use of innovative scientific approaches to help solve important environmental problems,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt stated in an August, 2017, press release about the project. “By working with our state partners and engaging the public we can foster creative solutions to these challenges.”

The students at Brookfield and children in the community surrounding the school are particularly vulnerable to diseases, like asthma, linked to freeway pollution. A 2008 report from the Alameda County Public Health Department on asthma found that rates of the respiratory illness in Oakland are higher along the I-80 and I-880 freeways and among non-white and immigrant residents. Brookfield’s student population is 62 percent Hispanic or Latino and 27 percent black, according to data from the California Department of Education.

A 2015 study, “Long-term exposures to fine and ultrafine particles, species and sources: Results from the California Teachers, Study Cohort,” from the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment also found a correlation between death from heart disease and long-term exposure to gaseous and metallic particles. Researchers analyzed eight years of health data provided by the State Teachers Retirement System on over 100,000 middle-aged women working as teachers or administrators in California schools. They found that exposure to ultrafine particles from air pollution was strongly associated with death from heart disease caused by blocked arteries.

The EPA is calling the project a “vegetation barrier” and touting its potential for improving air quality. But Marie Roberts, the principal of Brookfield, has a different name for it—and broader ambitions how the project can enhance her students’ quality of life.

“Our hope is to create an urban forest,” she said. “One of our intentions is to cut down on some of the pollution that comes from the freeway.” But, she added, they also want to create areas in the school where teachers can give their students science lessons.

“It’s one thing to teach students the parts of a plant in the classroom, but it’s another to be able to come out to the playground and show students the parts of a plant,” agreed Umaña.

But the forest, still only a sparse collection of saplings and plants, is struggling to grow. It was planted on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by an army of volunteers, during California’s rainiest wet season ever. Flooding from the rain threatened to “drown” the roots of the vegetation, as Lisa Fasano of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District put it, so the plants were uprooted and replanted.

The air quality district donated $25,000 in grant funding toward the vegetation barrier and Fasano said that her organization “will certainly have volunteers out there” to help with the replanting effort.

Another large group of volunteers came later in the year to plant a small orchard with apple, orange, lemon, pomegranate and kiwi trees. But a heatwave in late August and early September scorched some of the vegetation, killing its leaves.

Umaña said it was “sad” to see some of the vegetation, which was provided by grants from Bay Area-based organizations like the air quality district, Cal Fire’s Green Trees for the Golden State via Urban Releaf, and the EPA, die out or have to be replanted. She said the school doesn’t have enough personnel to dedicate someone to tend to the vegetation full-time.

“If it’s during the week and we’re trying to count on our employees, who are already doing 20 different things. That’s when it gets difficult,” said Umaña, who added that school staff will ask for volunteer gardeners at Back to School Night.

But the project has already produced a change, albeit an intangible one, for some members of the Brookfield community. “For students, grandparents and family members of kids, it’s sort of become more of a point of pride,” Umaña said. “They just feel a little bit happier to be here.”

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