Southern California air getting cleaner

By Steve Scauzillo, SGVN

The air in Southern California is the best it has been in 13 years, according to the American Lung Association, and Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties have been removed from the association’s “fail” list for particle pollution for the first time.

The 13th annual “State of the Air” report released by the nonprofit association Wednesday, and a study from the California Air Pollution Control Officers released Tuesday, both show a dramatic decrease in all kinds of lung-damaging pollution, including ozone and particle pollution.

For the South Coast Air Basin – which includes the non-desert parts of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Orange counties – the number of good air days rose from 76 in 2000 to 154 in 2011, as determined by the Air Quality Index, a daily measurement of four major smog components. Likewise, the number of “unhealthy” days dropped from 30 to just 10 last year. In between, there were “moderate” and “unhealthy for sensitive people” days, according to the air pollution officers’ report “California’s Progress Toward Clean Air 2012.”

Despite these successes, Southern California remains the No. 1 smoggiest region in the nation for ozone pollution, according to the Lung Association. The air pollution officers’ data shows that in 2011, there were 52 days above the federal Environmental Protection Agency standard of 75 parts per billion for ozone, just three days less than in 2000.

Locally, San Bernardino County has the worst air with 127.8 ozone days, followed by Riverside County with 111.3 and Los Angeles County with 86.2. Orange County had only 10.7 ozone days, according to the Lung Association report.

Experts say while the amount of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides from power plants, vehicles, and lawnmowers is down, the unique geography of Southern California mountains and valleys trap in bad air. Also, the California sunshine cooks these primary pollutants and creates tropospheric ozone, a kind of mutated oxygen molecule that causes shortness of breath and, in the long-term, speeds up the aging of the lungs.

The Lung Association says studies show children and adults over 65 are most vulnerable to ozone’s health effects. Studies by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and New York University confirmed that ozone levels at or above the federal standard increased the number of premature deaths.

About 37,700 premature deaths a year in the United States could be avoided by strengthening the standards for particle pollution, the Lung Association report said. Short-term exposure increases around freeways and major thoroughfares, the report concluded.

Over 127.2 million Americans live in counties where they breathe unhealthy levels of ozone or short-term and long-term exposures to particle pollution, according to the report.

Other studies underscore the health effects from particle pollution, which can be from diesel exhaust and from microscopic nitrogen oxide molecules in the air, which account for smog’s brown tinge. New evidence shows diabetics are at a greater risk when exposed to particle pollution because it interferes with insulin resistance. Particle pollution also increases a person’s risk of heart attack, stroke and respiratory illness, according to the Lung Association.

In an unusual correlation, the Lung Association says people who use public transit face a greater risk of dying from exposure to smog, as do the unemployed and African Americans.

Dr. Kari Nadeau, a physician and researcher studying smog and asthma at Stanford University, said 2.1 million Californians suffer from asthma and of those, more than 90 percent live in counties receiving a failing air grade.

“The simple act of inhaling polluted air affects the immune system’s ability to do its job,” she said.

Her studies suggest air pollution can cause genetic changes inside the body, especially in children.

Lydia Rojas, a Los Angeles activist and mother of three children with asthma, watched her 15-year-old daughter die from a severe asthma attack.

“Without clean air, you can’t breathe. And if you can’t breathe, you die,” she said at a press conference Tuesday, holding back tears.