Clean air is in the eyes--or is it the lungs?--of the beholder.
Air quality officials announced this month that during the six-month smog season that ended Nov. 1, the Los Angeles Basin had the cleanest air they have ever recorded. There were fewer smog alerts in 1990 than in any year since records for Southern California were first maintained in 1955.
That trend held true in Long Beach and southeastern Los Angeles County, which did not record a single smog alert, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
The showing was especially significant for the two AQMD recording stations in the southeastern communities of Pico Rivera and Whittier. As recently as 1984, these two stations recorded smog alerts on a total 41 days.
Air district officials called the improvements "mind-boggling" and "dramatic."
But AQMD officials and health experts also say it is too soon to celebrate a victory over smog. They say ozone levels are still too high, and other types of pollution are actually on the increase in parts of the county's Southeast area.
First the good news:
So far in 1990, AQMD air-quality stations in Long Beach, Whittier, Pico Rivera and Lynwood have not reached the .20 parts per million threshold for ozone that, under the air district's standards, triggers a smog alert. This is the fifth year running that Long Beach has not suffered a smog alert and the second year in a row without an alert in Lynwood.
The federal government uses a more stringent standard for ozone pollution--.12 parts per million. The total number of hours in which ozone topped this federal clean-air standard also declined this past smog season compared to 1989: from 7 to 0 hours in Long Beach, from 90 to 37 in Whittier, from 10 to 3 in Lynwood and from 150 to 82 in Pico Rivera.
"People here say the smog seems to be getting somewhat better," said Pico Rivera City Manager Dennis Courtemarche. "When I first came here in 1982, I noticed a little difficulty breathing and I don't notice that as much."
Ozone is a "secondary" pollutant that forms in the air when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emitted by cars and industry are exposed to sunlight. That type of pollution is worse in inland areas like the San Gabriel Valley, where temperatures are higher and the air more stagnant.
AQMD officials say ozone has dropped substantially over the last decade, in large part because of greater controls on car exhausts and industrial emissions. "When you compare it with the past, it's like night and day," said Joe Cassmassi, senior meteorologist with the AQMD. "There's really been a dramatic improvement."
But the Southeast has not fared as well with "primary" pollutants, the compounds that are spewed directly out of automobile tailpipes and industrial smokestacks.
The Lynwood AQMD station, for example, had the highest readings in the Los Angeles Basin for carbon monoxide, which comes mostly from car exhausts. It showed 55 days in 1989 above the federal threshold of 9.5 parts per million for an eight-hour period. Statistics are not yet available for this year for the compound, but the federal standard was exceeded 51 times in 1988 and just 32 in 1985.
Carbon monoxide limits the blood's ability to carry oxygen, causing headaches, dizziness and shortness of breath.
The Long Beach/Southeast area also suffered from industrial pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide. AQMD stations in Long Beach, Pico Rivera and Lynwood join the city of Hawthorne with the highest levels of that pollutant in the basin. Sulfur dioxide can cause coughing and nose, throat and eye irritation.
"Can you really turn around and tell people the air is improving when you are only talking about one of the constituents, ozone?" said Dr. Russell Sherwin, a professor of pathology at the USC School of Medicine. "We understate, rather than overstate, what the problem is."
Some Southern Californians believe they are protected from air pollution because of their proximity to ocean winds. "The people in Long Beach couldn't understand why we were there," said Roger Detels, a UCLA professor of epidemiology who studied air pollution in the city. "People would say, 'We are on the coast, why would you want to test us?' " While coastal communities still are considered to have the cleanest air, Detels and a UCLA research group will soon publish the latest chapter in a study showing that areas only slightly inland are not immune from pollution.
The researchers compared residents of Glendora and Long Beach with Lancaster, a control area with relatively cleaner air.
"Young people tend to have an increase in lung function until the age of about 25," Detels said. "But in the polluted areas kids did not have as large an increase as in the control area. And after 25 years of age they had a greater decline in lung function."
The lung performance was as bad for subjects in Long Beach as in Glendora, which has the basin's highest ozone concentrations, Detels said.