After years of progress, is Southland air still making us sick?
By Ilsa Setziol, January 3, 2014
If you’ve lived in the Pasadena area long enough, you remember those summers when you couldn’t see the San Gabriel Mountains for days on end. From those mountains, you’d look out on a brown pall of
pollution shrouding the L.A. basin.
The skies are clearer and cleaner now: The number of unhealthy air days in Southern California has been cut in half since 1976. And there hasn’t been a smog alert in over a decade. “We have done miraculous things through cleaner cars, better fuels, cracking down on refineries,” says Joe Lyou, who heads the nonprofit Coalition for Clean Air. The progress comes despite the region’s topography and growing population, both conducive to smog.
But — cough, cough — many of us are still breathing bad air, and changing that will require even greater efforts to clean up the way we live, commute and do business in Southern California. The metropolitan L.A./Riverside/San Bernardino area continues to have the nation’s most severe air pollution problem (tied with the San Joaquin Valley). In 2012, the region exceeded federal health standards for ozone on 111 days. The state estimates that, every year, Southland smog — primarily ozone and particulates — causes 5,000 people to die prematurely, shortening some lives by as much as a decade. The monetary cost in lost lives, hospitalizations, lost workdays, etc., is estimated at a hefty $14.6 billion.
Part of our predicament is that the more public health officials study air pollution, the more health impacts they find, often at lower levels of exposure. “So the standards have gotten tougher over time,” says Lyou, also Governor Brown’s appointee to the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), a local regulatory agency. “The goalposts have been moved.”
The Pasadena area fares better than spots further inland or near the ports, racking up fewer than 20 bad ozone days a year — down from about 100 in the early 1990s. But if you’re unlucky enough to live, work or go to school near a freeway, you could be breathing unhealthy air day in, day out. (It’s not certain how far one must be from a freeway to be considered safe, but California recommends that residences and businesses maintain at least a 500-foot buffer.) And just a few smoggy days can be dangerous — even deadly — for sensitive people, according to Dr. Daryl Banta, medical director of Pulmonary and Respiratory Services at Huntington Hospital. “I see it quite frequently,” he says. “When the air quality is bad, a lot of patients come to my office for coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing.” Some, he says, are even sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable. A number of studies, including USC’s long-term Children’s Health Study, have found that children who live in highly polluted areas are more likely to become asthmatic, especially if they exercise outdoors frequently. The USC study also revealed that kids living in the most polluted parts of Southern California had lower lung capacity than kids breathing cleaner air.
Another concern, according to Dr. Banta, is the possible link between particulate pollution — a mixture of microscopic solid particles and liquid droplets — and an increased risk for stroke, heart disease and possibly even lung cancer. “The lungs provide some form of defense from air pollutants,” he says, “but not 100 percent. Some particles will penetrate deep into the lungs, causing dangerous irritation and inflammation.” Other studies have correlated air pollution with birth defects and low birth weight. Dr. Banta adds that even people with no history of asthma or chronic bronchitis can experience respiratory problems on polluted days, including heightened vulnerability to cold and flu viruses.
For Southern Californians to breathe easy, nearly every source of air pollution must get cleaner, experts say. “We need to think about a virtually-zero-emission society,” says Sam Atwood, spokesman for the AQMD, adding that this would involve “transportation and all other sources of pollution being virtually zero emission.”
Regulators hope rules and incentives in the works will ensure the region meets the current ozone standard within a decade, and a forthcoming, more stringent ozone standard by 2032. (The area is expected to meet the particulate standard in two years.)
The road to clean air, though, will be steep and congested. To hit the ozone target, Atwood says the region will have to reduce some pollutants by an additional 80 percent, although the agency acknowledges in its 2012 Air Quality Management Plan that some of the measures and technologies for that task have yet to be developed.
The AQMD has been tightening the screws on local industry for years, and state regulators have cleaned up car emissions considerably. But Southern California is bedeviled by sources of pollution it can’t directly regulate: chiefly, the diesel-spewing goods-movement industry. “You look at the fact that more than 40 percent of all the goods imported into the U.S. from anywhere come through the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, and it starts to sink in why it’s important that ships, trains and trucks be as clean as possible,” Atwood says. And pollution from goods movement (transportation of retail products from manufacturing site to point of sale) doesn’t just linger in communities near the ports and the 710 freeway — it also blows inland, contributing to smog in the San Gabriel Valley.
So far, federal rules for trucks and trains and international regulations on ships have fallen far short of what’s needed, according to clean-air experts. That’s left state and local regulators picking up the slack however they can. California now requires ships visiting state ports to burn cleaner fuel within about 200 miles of its shores. AQMD is paying businesses for diesel engine upgrades and helping to bring clean technologies to market. The agency recently allocated $18.7 million of state funds to retrofit or repower 172 diesel engines — trucks, construction equipment, small marine vessels — with cleaner technology. Also in the pipeline: a possible 710 freeway lane designated just for clean trucks, and a pilot program retrofitting trucks so they can tap into overhead electric lines when near ports. “We don’t have the luxury of allowing any source of pollution to go uncontrolled,” says Lyou. “If we can’t do transportation and land-use decisions properly, if we can’t get people in clean cars, we’re never going to attain federal ozone standards.”
Despite the popularity of the Toyota Prius, cars are projected to be the region’s fourth-largest source of smog-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx) this year, emitting 35 tons a day. “Angelenos need to do everything they can,” says Lyou. “[We] have to drive the cleanest cars, we have to make electrons available for charging our cars.” To free up space on the electric grid, he says, we need to invest in energy efficiency at home, as well as in home solar systems.
One man doing his part is South Pasadena City Councilman Michael Cacciotti, the San Gabriel Valley’s representative on the AQMD board. When not driving his electric car, you can find him riding the Metro Gold Line or biking to the gym. Five years ago, he launched a bike-to-work day. “Now every two weeks, people who work with me, we bike to work,” he says. Cacciotti also traded in his gas-powered lawn mower for a clean and quiet electric model. It doesn’t get much use these days, though, as he’s converted his yard to drought-tolerant native plants. That cuts down on water and all the energy (i.e., pollution) it takes to transport water from far away. A remodel of his house employed paint that is low in smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “You will pay a premium,” he says, “but you won’t be inhaling those fumes, which we know cause respiratory problems.”
If Southern California fails to meet clean air standards, the federal government could impose sanctions — withhold highway funds, say, or require “no-drive” days. But for Lyou, whose son has asthma, that’s not the most important reason to take action. “You have to clean up the air so children have a chance to live long and healthful lives,” he says. “They have a right to breathe clean air.”
For hourly updates of Southland air quality, visit AQMD.gov.