Backyard Freeways

"In Communities of color is where you find all these cumulative impacts that affect our health. You don't find them in other pretty areas of the city."

BACKYARD FREEWAYS - Increased levels of pollutants are often found in poor neighborhoods of color that generally have less political power. This film follows the stories of residents of Southeast San Francisco who suffer with the brunt of the city's pollution on a daily basis. Major pollutants including freeways, factories, power plants and gas stations are disproportionately placed in the southeast sector of the city where their cumulative impact severely affects the health of the families that live here. This film talks with local organizers whose health has been compromised because of the toxins that they are chronically exposed to and highlights the work of local grassroots organizations and community leaders to show what they are doing to attain Environmental Justice and build stronger, healthier, cleaner neighborhoods.



Discussion Guide

No one wants pollution in their backyard. This film explores the health and social impacts of environmental racism on marginalized communities in South East San Francisco. These questions investigate our individual and societal roles in the pollution equation.


  • Environmental Justice
  • Environmental Racism
  • Community Organizing

Discussion Questions

  •  Why do polluting industries target lower income communities as placement sites?
  • In the film Tom Rivard describes how communities in Southeast San Francisco were torn apart by freeways in the 1950's. How can cities plan neighborhoods that are healthy and safe for all residents?
  • Tom also said that residents of South East San Francisco have less political influence.  How does this affect the placement of pollutants in San Francisco? 
  • In the film, Chris talks about waking up with soot in his nose.  Do you know what pollutants exist in your neighborhood? How do they affect your health?  In what ways would you battle pollution in your neighborhood?
  • Alessandra talks about how she joined the organization PODER to fight pollution in her neighborhood.  How do you think more teens like Alessandra can get active in fighting environmental racism in their communities?
  • Yuen Mai Wong worked with residents in her community to stop an increase of harmful toxins.  Why is organizing one of the most important avenues towards making the air in Southeast San Francisco cleaner for inhabitants to breath?


Facts & Resources


  • Long Term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys.
  • Short term exposure to air pollution may result in irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.  Other symptoms can include headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions.  Short-term air pollution can aggravate the medical conditions of individuals with asthma and emphysema.
  • To save time and money, companies seek to locate environmentally hazardous industries in communities which put up the less resistance, are less informed and less powerful politically, and more dependant upon local job development efforts (Pinderhughes 1996)
  • Leading causes of premature death in Southeast San Francisco are illnesses affected by exposure to traffic-related air pollution and noise- including (in rank order, see chart below) : ischemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other cancers, and lung disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD) based on 200-2001 data for the 94112 zip code.

 Research Studies

  • People who lived near a main road were almost twice as likely to die from heart or lung disease and 1.4 times as likely to die from any cause compared with those who lived in less-trafficked areas. Researchers say these results are similar to those seen in previous US studies on the effects of long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution.
  • Traffic emissions contain many pollutants that might be responsible for the health risks, such as ultrafine particles, diesel soot, and nitrogen oxides, which have been linked to cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Hoek,Brunekreef, Goldbohn, Fischer, van den Brandt. (2002). Association between mortality and indicators of traffic-related air pollution inthe Netherlands: a cohort study. Lancet, 360 (9341): 1203-9.
  • Children living in neighborhoods with heavy truck traffic within 200 meters of their homes had increased risks of asthma hospitalization. Lin, Munsie, Hwang, Fitzgerald, and Cayo. (2002). Childhood Asthma Hospitalization and Residential Exposure to State Route Traffic. Environmental Research, Section A, Vol. 88, pp. 73-81.
  • Studies conducted in the vicinity of Interstates 405 and 710 in Southern California found that the number of ultrafine particles in the air was approximately 25 times more concentrated near the freeways and that pollution levels gradually decrease back to normal (background) levels around 300 meters, or 990 feet, downwind from the freeway.
  • Motor vehicles are the most significant source of ultrafine particles, which have been linked to increases in mortality and morbidity.
  • Recent research concludes that ultrafine particles are more toxic than larger particles with the same chemical composition. Moreover, the researchers found considerably higher concentrations of carbon monoxide pollution near the freeways. Zhu, Hinds, Kim, Sioutas. Concentration and size distribution of ultrafine particles near a major highway. Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association. September 2002. Zhu, Hinds, Kim, Shen, Sioutas. Study of ultrafine particles near a major highway with heavy-duty diesel traffic. Atmospheric Environment. 36(2002), 4323-4335
  • A 2000 Denver study showed that children living within 250 yards of streets or highways with 20,000 vehicles per day are six times more likely to develop all types of cancer and eight times more likely to get leukemia. The study looked at associations between traffic density, power lines, and all childhood cancers with measurements obtained in 1979 and 1990. It found a weak association from power lines, but a strong association with highways. It suggested that benzene pollution might be the cancer promoter causing the problem. Pearson et al. (2000). Distance-weighted traffic density in proximity to a home is a risk factor for leukemia and other childhood cancers. Journal of Air and Waste Management Association 50:175-180.


Meet the Filmmakers


TERESA ALMAGUER was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, but herroots are in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco,  Mexico. She has been coordinating the Common Roots youth organizer program in San Francisco for the past eight years.  The program is a  collaboration between PODER and the Chinese Progressive Association.  It  brings together Latino and Chinese youth and their families to develop leadership andcommunity organizing skills to build the People Power needed to attain environmental and economic justice in our Southeast San Francisco communities.  Teresa is in the Health Education department at San Francisco State University, committed to continue working in the areaof Environmental Health and Justice.  Teresa has been a part of aztec dancing group Xiuhcoatl for over thirteen years dancing in prayer forthe healing of our communities. 


IRENE VATJARANURUK: A transplant from Los Angeles, Irene left her heart in San Francisco at the age of ten. Eight years later, San Francisco State University drew her back. Now a five year resident, Irene has found an exciting niche within the 7x7mile city. Originally a physiology major, her intrigue in the sciences from an early age guided her to study medicine. It was only a matter of time until the wisdom of various professors at SF State made her recognize that her passion for medicine lied not only in the study itself, but in the purity of wanting to help people and create social change. 

As if a light bulb went off in her head, Irene realized more than ever that she indeed was a closet revolutionary and sought out the knowledge in the field of urban studies, combining it with her science roots to ultimately focus on public health policy. She is actively supporting social justice causes in the community by working with various non-profits including POOR Magazine, a grassroots community led organization dedicated to providing media access and education to those struggling with poverty. Irene received a B.A. in Urban Studies, emphasizing on Public Policy from San Francisco State University and hopes to further her studies by getting a Master's in public health not too far in the future. 


ANNA LACLERGUE: Born and raised in Santa Cruz, California Anna Laclergue has always had a love of the ocean, outdoor activities, animals, and cinema-often making short films and music videos with her school friends. She completed her general education at Sonoma State University and transfered to San Francisco State University to pursue her career in Film and the Fine Arts. In her time in the SFSU Cinema Department Anna has worked on multiple short films including Beyond Shadows (2007), Coffee Strike (2008), Stan's Justice (2008) and Fixed Disposition (2008). Anna often works as a camera assistant, camera operator, and  has a love for all aspects of  film production. She completed Backyard Freeways (2009) which has been her largest and most prestegious film yet. She graduated from San Francisco State University in May 2009 and hopes to continue making both narrative films and films for social justice.


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