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Southland Smog Reaches Highest Level in Six Years

September 24, 2003|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

A combination of hot, stagnant weather and growing emissions from cars, ships, factories and household products generated the highest levels of smog in Southern California in six years.

Not since 1997 has ozone, an invisible toxic gas and the main ingredient in smog, blanketed the greater Los Angeles area as it did this summer. Dirty air occurred on many more days and at higher concentrations than forecasters had expected, making breathing unhealthy for millions of people from Simi Valley to Banning. Only communities hugging the coastline escaped the elevated smog levels, air quality officials said.

Although air pollution these days is diminished from a generation ago -- days when unhealthful ozone occurs have fallen by 70% since 1976 -- the resurgence of heavy smog over the last three years, and particularly this summer, threatens the long-term trend toward cleaner air.

Without major emission reductions in the next several years, air quality officials warn that the region may miss a 2010 Clean Air Act deadline to virtually eliminate smoggy days. If the deadline isn't met, the Los Angeles region could face federal sanctions amounting to billions of dollars.

"After more than a decade of steadily improving air quality, the trend has leveled off," said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Just how poor was air quality this summer?

Unhealthful air developed somewhere across Southern California, on average, almost every other day since May 1, the start of the smog season. There were nearly 30% more smoggy days than were recorded last year, the AQMD said.

Ozone is an invisible gas formed when emissions from tailpipes, smokestacks and ordinary household chemicals mix in sunlight. Brief exposure can cause chest pains, coughing and dizziness, but long-term exposure can lead to loss of lung function and increased risk of lung disease. The gas is highly toxic, and federal law permits no more than 0.12 parts per million of ozone in any one-hour period on any day of the year.

Yet, the highest ozone measurement this year was 80% higher than the federal limit -- a concentration that prompted air quality officials to declare a first-stage ozone alert, the first in Southern California in five years, when air is dangerous for everyone to breathe. It occurred on July 11 at Lake Arrowhead. There, residents were advised to stay indoors and avoid all prolonged, outdoor exercise until the smog cloud, which lingers in bowl-shaped mountain valleys, passed.

The Inland Empire bore the brunt of smog this year. Sea breezes blow emissions deep into inland valleys, chemicals react with sunshine along the way, and mountains block smog from escaping. Towns with the worst air pollution this year included Lake Arrowhead with 44 days over the federal ozone limit; Redlands with 36 days; Santa Clarita with 33, and Glendora with 20. Thirteen smoggy days were reported in Reseda, seven in Pasadena and four in Burbank, the AQMD said.

A few years ago, Houston and the San Joaquin Valley briefly overtook the Los Angeles region as the smoggiest places in the country.

This year, the region of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties posted twice as many smoggy days as were reported in either Houston or the San Joaquin Valley. Air quality improved slightly in those places, while there has been virtually no progress made against smog here for nearly six years, air quality officials said.

Environmentalists said this region's summer of smog should serve as a klaxon call to officials to redouble efforts to attack emissions.

"It's a very negative trend," said Todd Campbell, policy director of the Coalition for Clean Air. "It's a combination of growth, hotter temperatures and regulators not being as aggressive as they have in the past."

Joe Cassmassi, senior meteorologist for the AQMD, said much of this year's foul air was due to unusually warm temperatures and stubborn inversions, or warm-air layers that trap air pollution over cities.

"Weather was the overriding factor. No question," Cassmassi said. "This year has been an anomaly and by next year we should, hopefully, see an improvement over the previous years."

Until recently, California air quality officials were optimistic about achieving healthful air in the Los Angeles region. But they now warn that major reductions in emissions will be required from a host of sources, including automobile tailpipes, big-rig diesel trucks, consumer products, ships and harbor equipment, airports and trains.

"We're running out of time," Campbell said. "Every day that goes by when we miss an opportunity to clean up, achieving healthy air becomes less likely.''

At the root of the problem, experts said, are too many people driving too many cars, especially big trucks and sport utility vehicles that are not required to meet the same fuel efficiency standards required of passenger cars. Half the new vehicles sold in California are trucks and SUVs.

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