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Go ahead and hack. It's our birthright.

Like it or not, smog is one of the defining features of Los Angeles. And like the ocean or the mountains, it shows no sign of ever going away.

June 21, 2006|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

The public, too, weighed in with suggestions: As far back as 1960, for example, crusty Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky made the case for carpooling. "It is obviously preposterous to allow a single individual to pollute the atmosphere at his pleasure," he wrote, adding that eradicating smog would show the Communists that America meant business.

Some tips from the public bordered on the absurd. One would have blasted holes through the San Gabriel Mountains and fanned the dirty air to the desert beyond. Another would have built a huge mirror to deflect sunlight upward, thus punching a hole through the inversion layer and permitting the smoggy air to dissipate.

Dewey's favorite was a proposal to puncture the inversion layer by deploying a host of helicopters to hover over the city, churning up the air with their propeller blades.

Anything, it seemed, but give up the automobile.

Eventually, though, controlling smog came down to controlling the car -- and gaining a greater understanding of just what makes up L.A.'s smog. Evaporating organic chemicals (from gasoline, paint, solvents, car exhaust and even eucalyptus trees) join oxides of nitrogen (from vehicle exhaust and power plants), and the two over the day are buffeted eastward by the off-ocean wind. As they ride, they react in sunlight to form a soup of chemicals, including rubber-eroding ozone.

Also riding are tiny particles derived from such sources as dust, exhaust, ground-up tires, cooking and barbecues. As the day goes on, the air gets worse and moves inland, peaking in nastiness at Santa Clarita or Crestline and Lake Arrowhead, home of the nation's highest ozone levels.

We owe such understanding in part to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, whose spiffy Diamond Bar headquarters, right above the 60 Freeway, is slap in the middle of smogland. Guarding its air-testing labs are two decommissioned smog-monitoring machines that no one had the heart to throw out: a tin soldier-like contraption called the Cheney Autosampler Model 1 that was used to collect smog particles in the 1950s, and another with the look of a grandfather clock that once sampled sulfur dioxide.

Inside, fueled by coffee breaks at the district's Blue Skies Cafe, technicians toil year-round monitoring the Southland's air. A half-acre sea of benches is covered with automated machinery running tests around the clock. There are mass spectrometers, plastic bags and metal spheres filled with L.A. air samples, and a stack of brown envelopes holding collections of small particles.

A chemist is analyzing samples of minute particles: Peaks and troughs on a graph will tell him what toxic chemicals are present, and other tests will reveal what percentage came from vehicles, frying meat or even vegetation. It's a far cry from the early days of L.A. smog science, when ozone was tracked measuring scabs on bean plants or how long it took for a rubber band to crack.

"Ozone has gotten dramatically better since the late 1970s -- the last five, six years have been kind of flat in terms of the trend," says Sam Atwood of the air-quality agency. "It's not getting worse, but it's certainly not improving at the same rapid rate that it was. Cars have cleaned up a tremendous amount. Today's new car is 1,000 times cleaner than cars in the 1960s. But we still have 10 million vehicles."

Today, the Southland still holds the nation's record for dirtiness despite recent, stiff competition from its closest contenders, Houston and the San Joaquin Valley. Yet the air we breathe today is much improved, even with the steadily growing population: L.A. hasn't had a Stage 1 smog alert since 2003.

The kind of air pollution we produce (derived from vehicle exhaust and other emissions that are simmered gently to maturity in the sunshine) is now typical in such cities as Denver, Bakersfield, Phoenix and Atlanta. Our city, it appears, may be in danger of losing a dubious distinction.

Yet Dewey thinks L.A. and smog will always be inextricably linked -- in good ways as well as bad.

Despite our still-filthy air, he thinks L.A. has reason to be proud. The region was the first to present the problem of auto pollution to the world, and the first to show that city-by-city ordinances couldn't fix the problem. It was the training ground for a host of air pollution officers who fanned out to take key positions in the federal government and cities nationwide, and the 800-pound gorilla that showed the need for a Clean Air Act that the whole nation benefits from today.

"Los Angeles and Southern California should carry the stigma of smog. It is where it all began, it became notorious and it still is notorious," he says. But, Dewey adds, L.A.'s smog controllers "were the first to take it on, and they took it on with conviction. In a weird way, smog should almost be a badge of pride."

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Bad air days -- 464 years of them

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