Area gets F for air pollution

(April 28, 2011)


April 28, 2011

Despite decades of progress, air in the Long Beach-Los Angeles area remains among the nation's most polluted and potentially dangerous, according to a new report.

The region received an F for the number of days where smog-producing ozone reaches unhealthy levels, averaging 91 days, according to a detailed study by the American Lung Association released Tuesday.

The area also ranked second-worst for average annual levels of particulate matter, a cancer-causing pollutant emitted by the diesel engines and heavy industry prevalent around local oil refineries and the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

State air quality regulators list the port complex as the largest source of air pollution in California, contributing to an estimated 4,000 premature deaths annually.

"From a health perspective, the particulate matter is a major threat," said Dr. Kari Nadeau, a pediatrician and asthma and allergy specialist at Stanford Medical Center. "On one hand, people want to go outside, but not if they're going to be breathing chronically dirty air."

Nadeau said the Los Angeles Basin is especially hard hit because pollutants from the state's agricultural heart - the Central Valley - often blow into the region, exacerbating the situation.

"It's really a triple whammy, because you have the ports, the Central Valley and the huge population," Nadeau said. "But we shouldn't allow ourselves to get discouraged, because the air is improving and we can ensure it continues to do so by working both on a personal level and within the community to build on the gains already made."

The full report, available at, looked at data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency, state and regional air quality regulators, universities, businesses and nonprofit groups.

Much of the information was compiled by analyzing special air filters that catch major pollutants and are routinely studied by scientists researching how traffic, wind patterns, weather and geography affect a community's air quality.

Such filters are often set up at schools, parks, businesses, public structures and homes across the country, including at several spots in Long Beach.

The five worst counties for ozone are in California, where heavy industry, auto traffic, geography, a large population and weather help contribute to smoggy conditions across much of the state, particularly in the urban Los Angeles basin and agricultural Central Valley.

For levels of the most dangerous type of air pollution, cancer-causing particulate matter, the Long Beach area suffers from the country's fourth worst levels, after Bakersfield, Fresno and Pittsburgh, the report found.

A 2008 study by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a local agency, found cargo ships alone spewed out more than 23 tons of sulfur oxides daily, more than all the oil refineries, cars, trucks, trains, power plants and airplanes in the region combined as the ships called on local ports.

That number is estimated to have dropped since, in part because of lower cargo volumes, but also thanks to measures implemented jointly by the ports, including the use of cleaner fuels and a program to slow ship speeds within 40 miles of the harbor.

Air quality regulators also found freight ships visiting San Pedro Bay release more than 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas - and 1,000 tons of diesel particulate matter into local skies annually.

However, aggressive measures by the ports, outlined in their Clean Air Action Plan, have helped ease the amount of dirty air caused by the trucks, trains, ships and cargo-handling equipment serving the sprawling port complex.

For example, the Clean Trucks Program, one element in the Clean Air Action Plan, has slashed truck diesel pollution by 80 percent since 2008 from the estimated 10,000 big rigs serving the port daily.

Other measures, including increasingly cleaner passenger cars, low-emission fuels, exhaust filters at refineries and emission standards at restaurants and other businesses have cut air pollution dramatically in recent decades.

As a result, the number of severe smog days, when children with respiratory illnesses and the elderly are urged to stay indoors, has dropped from 223 in 1977 to 91 in 2010 for the Los Angeles area.

But much work remains.

New research found that even a few hours' exposure to high levels of particulate matter and other tailpipe emissions can cause physiological changes for people suffering from asthma, heart disease and other lung ailments.

"For a child with asthma, playing outdoors in an area near a freeway or railyard can have significant impacts," Nadeau said.

The report found that while air quality on average improved for most major cities from 2009-2010, including greater Los Angeles, power plants, refineries and industrial centers continue pouring out high levels of dangerous pollutants.

America's 440 coal-fired power plants in particular were targeted for high concentrations of dangerous particulate matter, which can lodge deep in lungs and damage cells.

"(Power plant) pollution blows across state lines into states thousands of miles away," the authors noted. "They produce 84 known hazardous air pollutants, including arsenic, mercury, dioxins, formaldehyde and hydrogen chloride."

Overall, researchers found an estimated 60 million people nationally live in areas receiving an F grade for air quality, including nearly 7 million seniors ages 65 and older and 15.5 million children under age 18.