Dan Witzling. Courtesy photo.

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Dan Witzling, Executive Director of the American Cancer Society of Los Angeles-Central Coast and Healthy Air Alliance Advisory Board Member, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

We are living in unprecedented times. The heaviness is pendulous. The daily images are discomforting. Perhaps most worrisome is that the facts to support the emotions are real and sobering.

Representing American Cancer Society in the Los Angeles Central Coast, we are relentlessly working to save lives by helping more people engage in wellness behavior while supporting research to find cures. A challenging task is to translate scientific data to reach diverse audiences, particularly vulnerable populations since we recognize that ZIP code is a higher cancer risk factor than genetic code. For instance, the most prominent rates of lung cancer in the Los Angeles area exist along transportation hubs such as Long Beach, Carson, Wilmington and Torrance. Even during the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, 40% of goods around the country we all order, and increasingly to our homes, travel first through these and other Los Angeles communities.

Diesel-fueled trucks are responsible for almost one-third of California’s annual emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. They also emit more particulate matter pollution than all of California’s power plants combined. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution tops the list of global health threats. That is because nine out of 10 people breathe unhealthy air, resulting in a death toll of seven million people each year. According to the EPA, people exposed to toxic air pollutants suffer from higher mortality rates, hospitalizations and disease, such as cancer.

Perhaps the cruelest data point in all of this is that these deaths are preventable, not by medical discoveries or laboratory research or even a hard-fought cure, but rather by people like you taking note of the issue and then taking action.

We have the most tangible evidence of what a change in behavior can do for our air quality right now, right here in our own backyards. The recent clear-sky views and rarely seen vistas that Californians were sharing in the last few months are copious and breathtaking. To achieve this, we simply drove a lot less. Likewise, if we want to curb the deadly emissions from diesel particulate matter (DPM), a leading cause of air pollution in California, we must reduce our exposure and look beyond the use of diesel.

When the American Cancer Society was founded in 1913, it was not considered appropriate to mention the word “cancer” in public. Any information regarding cancer was obscured in a climate of shame and even denial. In many ways, we are in a similar climate in 2020 around so many issues, including the deadly racial disparities of COVID-19 and unequal environmental exposure that make African American and Latinx communities more susceptible to health threats.

Unlike the cloak of quiet around cancer at the turn of the century, I am heartened and inspired today by a surge in collective action on display in social media and growing dialog on what we can accomplish together. My hope is that we don’t stop any of this, that we keep persevering. My hope is that dark times have brought about a flicker of inspiration that continues to burn bright, that we as a state, and even as a nation, will take this evidence before us and, rather than shy away because the task is seemingly insurmountable or too complicated, we instead lean into the knowledge, embrace the science, and know that our action in a democracy can bring about important, life-saving change.