City Councilman Ray Grabinski says he has been concerned for several years that the South Bay industrial area west of the Long Beach Freeway has been polluting the air in his west Long Beach district.
Prevailing winds pick up emissions from Wilmington and Carson refineries, and mix them with fumes from the Long Beach Municipal Airport and Long Beach and San Diego Freeways, creating an unhealthy concoction, he says.
"Most days the air looks to be fairly clean," Grabinski said, "but the most insidious (pollution) is not visible anyway. If you think of this stuff going into the lungs of young children playing on the playground, it's really frightening."
A study published recently in the American Journal of Public Health lends support to his concerns. After repeatedly testing the lung capacity of nearly 500 residents of Grabinski's district over an 11-year period, the study concluded that many of them--especially children--suffered serious lung damage, probably as a result of long-term exposure to air pollution.
"If I had kids in Long Beach, I'd be worried about them," said Roger Detels, a UCLA professor of epidemiology who was the principal investigator in the study. "If your kids are breathing air that might cause them problems later in life, that's a point of concern."
Armed with the report, Grabinski says he plans to ask the City Council to request that the South Coast Air Quality Management District conduct special monitoring in the area to determine the extent to which industrial pollutants are present, exactly where they come from and just how dangerous they might be. The only AQMD monitoring station in the city is in west Long Beach.
Data from the monitoring station indicates that Long Beach has less of an overall pollution problem than its inland neighbors, according to the AQMD. District meteorologist Joseph C. Cassmassi said ocean breezes tend to eventually blow emissions out of Long Beach. But residents living downwind of oil refineries, power plants or other sources of emissions may suffer heavy exposure to pollutants.
Mayor Ernie Kell, calling the UCLA study a "new weapon in our arsenal to try and correct the situation," said he would support Grabinski's proposal. "I suspect it's a citywide problem," Kell said. "We've heard of this effect before, but this is the first documented (evidence) that what (people) were saying is valid. Obviously we have to take a report like this very seriously."
Dr. Marion Johnson, the city's health officer, said the department has not received a significant number of complaints about lung problems from residents in general, but added: "I found (the study) very disturbing. We plan on looking into it."
A spokeswoman for the AQMD said the agency has set up special monitoring devices in the past at the request of individual cities and other groups, and would probably respond positively to a request by Long Beach officials.
But spokesmen for the petroleum industry questioned the UCLA study's conclusions and described the South Bay oil refineries as among the cleanest in the world.
"You could take these facilities and put them anywhere else in the world and they would easily pass environmental muster," said Gary Shiohama, media relations coordinator for the Western States Petroleum Assn., a trade group representing major oil companies in the Western United States. "The industry has spent millions of dollars trying to reduce emissions; we treat these events with a great deal of concern."
Mike Wang, the association's manager of operations and environmental issues, said the study's conclusions are suspect because the pollution data is outdated and the adults in the survey may have worked outside the area. Other research has shown that adults are exposed to the most pollution at the workplace, he said.
Indeed, air quality has improved significantly in Long Beach since the early 1970s when the UCLA study began, AQMD spokeswoman Paula Levy said. Technological improvements and increasingly stringent controls have led to sharp reductions in emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, two pollutants most commonly associated with industrial emissions, she said. Sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped 66% at the Long Beach monitoring station, and nitrogen dioxide emissions have dropped 31%. Particulate sulfates, another common industrial pollutant, have decreased since the early 1980s, she added.
Levy said pollution in Long Beach now exceeds state and federal standards only a handful of days each year. But on some of those days, she said, the levels of pollution around the monitoring station can rank among the highest in Southern California, she said.
"(We can't) say that there is no hazard in Long Beach," Levy said. "Pollutants are there and there is the potential for long-term damage."