In Wilmington, Carson and West Long Beach, people live with major sources of pollution almost in their backyards: the two busiest ports in the nation, five oil refineries, nine rail yards, four major freeways, several chemical facilities and the third largest oilfield in the contiguous U.S.

Located in southwestern Los Angeles County, these communities were among the first designated for California’s landmark environmental justice program, which aims to clean up air pollution in the state’s hot spots. About 300,000 people live there, mostly people of color.

First the good news: The air is much cleaner than it was years ago. For instance, on most days last year, air quality in Wilmington was considered good or moderate. But the community still breathes dirty air: On 23 days last year, fine particles violated the nation’s health standard — some days were so polluted that concentrations of fine particles were more than twice the standard, according to data from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. On those days, the air was deemed unhealthy for all residents to breathe.

Residents also are routinely exposed to industrial chemicals in their air. Industries in Wilmington and Carson reported emitting almost 1.7 million pounds of toxic air contaminants in 2020, including ammonia, hydrogen cyanide and benzene, which is a known cause of leukemia.

People in these polluted port communities more frequently suffer asthma attacks than their neighbors in cleaner cities. And the cancer risk — predominantly from diesel exhaust spewed by trucks, ships and trains — is 98% higher in Wilmington than in the rest of the Los Angeles basin.

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