Air pollution: LA-OC region still #1

(April 27, 2011)

The Orange County Register

April 27, 2011

The South Coast Air Basin held on to the number one spot for ozone pollution, a key component of smog, in the latest air-quality report card from the American Lung Assocation.

And Orange County got 'F' grades for ozone as well as short spikes of particle pollution, the tiny bits of soot and other pollutants that can work their way deep into the lungs.

Still, the association's yearly "State of the Air" report was upbeat, at least in parts. Air quality is improving in Southern California and across the nation, the report says, as cleaner-burning engines and pollution-control measures reveal their effects.

"Air quality has improved significantly in California compared to the first year of the State of the Air report 11 years ago," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the Lung Assocation. "But air pollution does continue to cause significant illness and death in California."

The report covers 2007 through 2009, the most recent years for which verified pollution-monitoring information is available.

Since 2000, when the Lung Assocation began issuing the reports, the "Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside" area, which includes Orange County, has remained number one for ozone, a pollutant that can harm lung tissue and worsen lung conditions.

The South Coast region also was number 2 for year-round particle pollution, and number four for short-term spikes of particle pollution.

Bakersfield appears to be up and coming in the air pollution sweepstakes.

It topped the list for both year-round and short-term particle pollution.

Bakersfield did, however, improve its ozone picture over last year's report, among the nation's 25 most ozone-polluted metropolitan areas to make such improvements. It was no. 2 for ozone.

The report identifies Honolulu and Santa Fe as the cleanest cities in the nation; they were the only ones to make the clean list for all three pollution types tracked in the report.

It is otherwise a mixture of grim statistics, encouraging notes on improvement and prescriptions for driving pollution levels lower.

Some 154 million people, or a little more than half the nation, live in places where pollution levels are "often too dangerous to breathe," the report says.

It raps members of Congress for trying to weaken the federal Clean Air Act.

"The Clean Air Act votes have been very partisan," Holmes-Gen said. "Republicans tended to vote in a block against the Clean Air Act, or for the amendments to weaken the Clean Air Act."

The report also breaks down pollution risk for various populations: adults, children, those who suffer from chronic diseases, such as asthma, and those who fall below the poverty line.

It ranks counties nationwide on levels of three pollutants, with numbers of people at risk in groups linked by age, disease or economic level.

And it takes critical aim at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying EPA should further reduce power-plant emissions, strengthen standards for ozone and particle pollution, and set new tailpipe emissions standards for cars and light trucks.

Holmes-Gen praised EPA, however, for tightening standards on trucking and on marine sources of pollution.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District and other air districts receive kudos from the Lung Association for helping cut pollution levels. The report says the yearly number of high ozone days in the basin has dropped from 189.5 for the 1996-98 period, covered in its first report in 2000, to 136.8 in the most recent report -- a 28 percent drop.

And it urges the public to send messages to the EPA, the President and Congress expressing support for the Clean Air Act and air-pollution control measures.

Most of the South Coast region's smog comes from vehicle exhaust, especially diesel, as well as pollution from the ports, Holmes-Gen said.

The Lung Association report says we should all drive less, avoid burning wood and trash and cut electricity use, among other suggestions.