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O.C., L.A. Fun Spots Worst in Disputed Air Study

Environment: Experts on many levels find fault with report from Natural Resources Defense Council.

July 03, 1999|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A report saying Orange County theme parks and Los Angeles beaches have the worst air quality among 18 popular vacation spots in the continental United States is marred by old data and flawed comparisons of urban and rural destinations, local, state and federal experts said.

Using federal air quality figures from 1990, the report issued Friday by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council concludes that Southern California vacation areas have dirtier air than 16 other popular summer destinations nationwide.

The areas are ranked by the estimated number of people per million expected to develop cancer caused by air pollution over a lifetime. The federal Environmental Protection Agency's benchmark safety level with the 1990 figures is one person in 1 million developing cancer.

At the top of the risk list, the air in Los Angeles County rated 226, a number derived from air-quality readings for the entire county, not just at the beaches. Orange County came in second worst at 212. The Napa Valley, the only other California area rated, ranked ninth-worst.

But local, state and federal experts took issue with the report for relying on data nearly a decade old and for pitting metropolitan areas against rural paradises like Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Vail, Colo.

"If you compare Orange County to other urban areas, the risks are going to be more comparable than if you compare Orange County to Kennebunkport and Jackson Hole," said Bill Kelly, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Representatives of the environmental group defended the use of the 1990 data, pointing out that the figures are the latest available nationwide.

But the figures are particularly misleading, said Kelly and others, because Southern California air quality has improved dramatically since 1990.

The EPA also disputed the data's relevance to California. "Air quality management advances so rapidly here, we don't think [the data are] reliable," said EPA spokesman Randy Wittorp. New figures are due at the end of the year.

California Air Resources Board spokesman Allan Hirsch agreed that the federal numbers are of limited value.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is not trying to scare residents and visitors to Southern California, said spokesman David Hawkins.

"These are risks that deserve public attention," he said. "The message is . . . even vacation spots are polluted."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Vacationing? Don't Breathe!

Orange County's resort areas and Los Angeles beaches were ranked the least healthy in air quality among 18 vacation spots, according to a report by the National Resources Defense Council. The study, based on 1990 estimated air pollution figures, found that even Vail, Colo., didn't meet air standards.

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Destination Location Rating Los Angeles Beaches Calif. 226 Theme Parks area Orange, Calif. 212 Washington, D.C. District of Columbia 207 Wrightsville Beach New Hanover, N.C. 144 Fire Island Suffolk, N.Y. 102 Theme Parks Area Orange, Fla. 90 Camp David Frederick, M.D. 88 Las Vegas Clark, Nev. 88 Napa Valley Napa, Calif. 82 Atlantic City Atlantic, N.J. 81 Grand Canyon Coconino, Ariz. 75 Virginia Beach Virginia Beach, Va. 73 Mackinac Island Mackinac, Mich. 72 Kennebunk York, Maine 53 Hilton Head Beaufort, S.C. 48 Martha's Vineyard Dukes, Mass. 45 Jackson Hole Teton, Wyo. 42 Vail Eagle, Colo. 35

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Source: National Resources Defense Council

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