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Region’s air called worst in the nation

Environment: Study shows Los Angeles area, including SCV, has highest levels of ozone pollution

Posted: April 28, 2010 9:45 p.m.
Updated: April 29, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 
Six in 10 Americans — approximately 175 million people — are living in places where air pollution often reaches dangerous levels, despite progress in reducing particle pollution, the American Lung Association said in a report released Wednesday.

The Los Angeles area, which includes the Santa Clarita Valley, had the nation’s worst ozone pollution.

The report examined fine particulate matter over 24-hour periods and as a year-round average. Bakersfield, Calif., had the worst short-term particle pollution, and the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale area of Arizona had the worst year-round particle pollution.

The U.S. cities with the cleanest air were Fargo, N.D., Wahpeton, N.D., and Lincoln, Neb.

The report is accurate but doesn’t show how far California has come, said Dimitri Stanich, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

“More than 45 percent of the days in the 1990 ozone season were considered very unhealthy (in the South Coast area). Today, 45 percent of the days are clean, more than double the number of clean days during 1990.”

“So, while we are still not meeting the federal air-quality standards, the concentrations that Californians are exposed to are coming down dramatically,” he said.

Ozone pollution, caused by the interaction between sunlight and pollutants — particularly from traffic — can irritate and burn the throat and lungs. It is most prevalent in the summer daytime heat and poses the greatest threat to those with asthma or other ailments.

Heather Merenda, a sustainability planner for Santa Clarita, said she wasn’t surprised by the failing air-quality grades. The city receives daily updates from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a state agency that regulates air quality in Los Angeles, Orange and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“We know we have an air-quality problem, because of the nature of the geography and the prevailing winds of L.A. and Ventura counties. We get daily reports and post them on our website, so people can protect their health,” Merenda said. “Ozone is the prevailing problem. Ninety percent is generated outside of our district.”

Merenda said city efforts to keep the air free of pollutants dates back at least to 1995. Major steps have been taken, including a compressed natural gas station, retrofitting the city’s heavy-duty vehicle fleet with particulate traps, promoting biking and walking and using public transportation to work and school.

“The largest contributors to air-quality problems are car and truck emissions. Interstate 5 is a north-south corridor of truck traffic that adds extra pollutants to the air,” Merenda said. “There’s no magic, other than we need to be smarter about how we drive our cars.”

Merenda said the next big step the city is taking to reduce pollution is converting its entire bus fleet to compressed natural gas, which helps keep the air cleaner.

Pat Willett, spokeswoman for the William S. Hart Union High School District, said the L.A. County’s Health Department notifies the district when the air could pose a health risk.

“The notification goes to all athletic departments, or anyone doing anything outside. We haven’t had an alert in months,” Willett said

In Arizona, Benjamin H. Grumbles, the state’s environmental quality director, issued a statement objecting to the methodology of the report highlighting the Phoenix area’s levels of particulates such as dust.

“This finding came about because of one lonely air quality monitor near the cowtown area of western Pinal County, nearly 40 miles and across the mountains from downtown Phoenix,” he said. He also called the report, based on 2006-08 figures, outdated, saying pollution levels have improved since then.

He said the state recognizes that the Phoenix area has significant air-pollution problems, and “We’re making some progress on dust and ozone in the Phoenix area, but not enough and not as quickly as we’d like.”

The report doesn’t do much to inspire pollution-plagued areas to continue working to clean their air, said Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in Fresno, which oversees the Bakersfield area.

“We are one of the dirtiest places in the nation, and we recognize that, but we are much cleaner than we used to be and we wish that side of the coin had been mentioned,” she said.

The report gave Bakersfield an “F’’ grade — again.

“If you are a student who was getting 10 percent on tests every year and you improved to 50 percent on tests every year, you are still failing, but you’ve made tremendous improvements,” Holt said. But if the instructor keeps yelling that you are failing, it doesn’t inspire you to keep doing the work it took to get from 10 percent to 50 percent, she said.

The California Air Resources Board has tripled its estimates of premature deaths in California from particle pollution to 18,000 a year, the report said. Stanich said those numbers were taken from 2008 documents and were in the process of being updated now. He said he expected new numbers in about a month.

Freeways remain high-risk areas for everyone, the study said, increasing the risk of heart attack, allergies, premature births and infant deaths.

The two biggest air-pollution threats in the United States are ozone and particle pollution, the Lung Association said. Others include carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and a variety of toxic substances.

For the first time, the association included people living in poverty as one of its at-risk groups, reasoning that people with lower income levels face higher pollution risks.

Signal Staff Writer Marianne Love contributed to this report.

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