Rush-to-the-hospital hour

April 16, 2003

Point me to the nearest Cancer Fighting Agency. I need a few million of their agents, who are needed wherever households and traffic congestion coexist.

Point me to the nearest Cancer Fighting Agency. I need a few million of their agents, who are needed wherever households and traffic congestion coexist.

Blame the Sierra Club for creating this vegetable frenzy. The environment group has been a leech to the road building industry for years. Every once in awhile, they hit a major artery. The latest bleeder is in Nevada, where there are plans to expand six lanes of I-95 out to 10. More than 300,000 vehicles tread through the section every day, and most of the time it's at your usual leisurely pace. Opponents of this construction project believe it reeks of cancer.

The Sierra Club has an elastic arm when it comes to throwing the book at people. But the one in Nevada has a nasty spin--the lawsuit is based on scientific research done on traffic-generated pollution. This is supposedly the first such case of its kind. It seems the Club, and health officials, are more determined than ever to prove auto emissions are an elevated health risk.

According to USA Today, the following studies are worth a judicial look:

* A Denver study in 2000 found that children living within 250 yards of highways used daily by more than 20,000 vehicles were eight times more likely to get leukemia;

* A study of I-405 and I-710 in Los Angeles showed that vehicles accounted for 90% of the cancer risk from air pollution, and that the highest risk was in congested, heavily populated urban zones; and

* A study in suburban Buffalo last year found that children living in neighborhoods close to heavy truck traffic had increased asthma risks.

I took the time to do a little research two of the worrisome carcinogen--benzene--found in auto emissions. Benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is produced by the burning of natural products. It is a component of products derived from coal and petroleum and is found in gasoline and other fuels, and is used in the manufacture of plastics, detergents, pesticides and other chemicals. Individuals who have been exposed the Benzene have indeed developed and died of leukemia. Long-term exposure may affect bone marrow and blood production. Short-term exposure to high levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, unconsciousness and death.

It all sounds a bit frightening . . . if you work with Benzene eight hours a day, five days a week. Further studies show the greatest risk is to workers who use various petroleum solvents that contain benzene. Those who use solvents in different trades have the increased risks of developing cancer and blood diseases from benzene. Among those at risk are painters, gasoline distribution workers, refinery workers, chemical workers, rubber workers, printers, newspaper pressworkers and shoe and leather workers. Hmmm, I don't see those who live near highways included in this target group.

I always find it funny when people try to throw out all this scientific research in the hopes of worrying people to the point of actually being surrounded by men in lab coats.

I like to operate under the science of common sense. For example, Chicago has experienced mild winters over the last five years. Doomsayers say it's because of global warming. Yet every once in awhile I'll see record highs in January set back in the late 1800s. Has global warming been in effect for well over 100 years? I mean, we were barely in the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. People have been living right off city intersections, where cars stop frequently, for decades. Is there any proof they were hit with more cases of cancer than those who lived off the beaten path? I don't think so.

And, if indeed emissions from congested traffic does increase the risk of incurable diseases then why isn't there more of a push to increase road capacity in this country? I mean, come on, by loosening up the commute won't we be saving thousands and thousands of lives? Makes sense to me.