When you want to know how bad the smog is in the San Gabriel Valley, you look at the mountains. Big, muscular presences that can fill the windshield of your car in January or February, the San Gabriel Mountains just sort of fade in the summer haze.
On bad days, like a recent Wednesday, they disappear altogether.
A smoggy day in Pomona-town. By 9 a.m., the San Gabriels are just a faint silhouette in the sky, and the foothills, a mile or so north of the 210 Freeway, are detectable only as a slight variation in texture and color out there in the miasmic gray. Auto emissions and tiny particulates start their photochemical fizz in the sunlight, like an Alka-Seltzer tablet in a glass of water, and the ozone level is climbing rapidly.
At Casa Colina in Pomona, one of Dr. Brian Tiep's patients, attached to a little oxygen tank on wheels, glances out the window. It's the apprehensive look of someone who has spotted a lion circling the house. "On days like today, you feel, uh, sweaty," Lillian McNamara said. "It makes it harder to breathe. Like it's"--groping for the unpleasant word--"close."
McNamara has emphysema. A veteran cigarette smoker, she found recently that she was having serious difficulty breathing. "They brought me to the emergency room," said McNamara, 72, a retired production line inspector. "I don't remember anything between Thursday and Saturday. When I came to, I had all these tubes in me."
McNamara had been neglecting her health ("Every morning, I had to have my nicotine and my caffeine"), she was out of shape and she lived in Glendora, one of the foothill communities where those great waves of poisonous air from the west come to rest.
By the time Tiep, a rehabilitation specialist who directs the Casa Colina pulmonary rehabilitation program, saw McNamara, she had lost a major part of her lung capacity. "Most of our emphysema patients have probably lost about 75%," said Tiep, a slim, tweedy man with a close-cropped beard.
Nobody is certain what the long-term effects of air pollution are for those who breathe it regularly, but Tiep suspects that it's a major contributor to disease. "About the only statement that you can make right now is that people who are at a high risk for developing lung disease in the first place are more likely to get into trouble in smog," he said.
But the San Gabriel Valley has smog--often in greater quantities than elsewhere--and it has lung disease patients. After 20 years of treating people with emphysema, asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, chronic bronchitis and other lung diseases, Tiep thinks that the link is clearly there. "I believe that some causes of lung scarring may be traced to smog," he said.
Scar tissue, a prime reason that lung patients have breathing difficulties, obstructs the flow of oxygen into the blood.
The pollutants arrive mostly via a quirk of geography and meteorology, said John H. Seinfeld, a Caltech engineering professor who has mapped smog patterns in the Los Angeles Basin.
There is a kind of puddling effect in the region, with offshore summer breezes delivering the smog, which is then trapped by the mountains, Seinfeld said.
"Air comes off the ocean and flows over the basin, picking up emissions from downtown and the western part of the basin and carrying them out to the San Gabriel Valley," he said. "With sunlight acting on them, they react. Ozone builds up as the air moves along, reaching a peak somewhere over the San Gabriel Valley."
Usually catching the brunt of this deleterious wafting action are the foothill communities. The County air-quality measuring station in Glendora, McNamara's hometown, has consistently ranked highest in total days in which federal standards for ozone--a kind of corrosive form of oxygen that causes temporary loss of lung capacity--have been exceeded.
Ozone forms when sunlight reacts with auto and industrial emissions. "It's the worst and the most studied component of smog," Tiep said. "It's an irritant. Its presence will decrease your pulmonary function, causing the airways to tighten down, constrict."
Last year, the Glendora station exceeded the federal ozone standard on 148 days. (The closest competitor in Southern California was Redlands in San Bernardino County, with 130 days above the federal standard.) On 49 days last year, the eastern San Gabriel Valley experienced Stage 1 episodes, meaning that, because of the concentration of ozone, the air quality was declared "very unhealthful."
While Glendora is the latest "hot spot," Seinfeld said, its foothill neighbors, from Azusa to Pomona, are "almost certainly just as high" in smog content.
"I blame smog on my problems," said Emma Furness, 81, another longtime Glendora resident who is going through Tiep's program.