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"We have a death sentence": Diesel emissions disproportionately harm people of color and poor neighborhoods, experts say

Diesel emissions more often harm people of color
Diesel emissions disproportionately harm people of color 02:51

Los Angeles — Even though Imelda Ulloa sweeps her patio three times a day, she can't keep up with the environmental grime left by a stream of semi trucks driving past her home in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles. 

"I'm counting for two hours and at least 350 trucks pass through here," she told CBS News. 

The trucks are heading to nearby ports and container yards that have sprung up because of supply chain issues. 

Ulloa, who has lived here for 25 years, said she now feels like a prisoner because she has to keep her windows and doors shut. 

Diesel trucks are just 5% of traffic on the nation's roads, but account for 50% of harmful nitrogen dioxide pollution. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are exposed to 28% more of this pollution, according to the University of Virginia, because industrial facilities are often located in poorer areas. 

Health experts say long-term exposure to diesel exhaust can worsen asthma, lead to lung disease and increase cancer risk. About 137 million Americans are living in areas with unhealthy levels of dirty air, according to the American Lung Association. 

Ulloa's husband now has asthma. Their son, Omar, said his doctor told him it "was because of the pollution." 

"To see him struggling just to even get a breath of air is heartbreaking," he told CBS News. "It's a really scary thing that I could possibly lose my dad over this." 

The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to address this issue in its newly launched Clean Trucks Plan. It will force the industry to use cleaner vehicles to cut nitrogen dioxide emissions by up to 60% by 2045. 

Jesse Marquez, executive director at Coalition For A Safe Environment, an environmental justice organization fighting for zero emissions trucks, said communities of color often lack the power to force change. 

"We have a death sentence, we have no escape," he told CBS News. "That's why we've had to organize politically to change some of these laws and support emerging technologies." 

A spokesman for councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the Wilmington area, told CBS News their office is trying to fix the truck problem. 

Ulloa hopes someone will listen, because she wants to feel safe standing in her own yard.

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