REGION: Southwest County air takes turn for worse

Riverside, CA (September 23, 2011)

Bucking a long-term trend of gradually improving air, the skies over Southwest County have been dirtier this year than they were in 2010, largely because of weather patterns, officials said this week.

So far this year, smog levels have soared into the unhealthy range 31 times, up from 23 days in 2010, according to records kept by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. By comparison, there were 37 days in 2009 when ozone levels exceeded federal limits.

The peak concentration also was higher. Ozone levels reached 107 parts per billion this year, after topping out at 92 parts per billion in 2010, said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The area is judged to be unhealthy when readings top 75 parts per billion, averaged over an eight-hour period.

Ozone, the principal component of smog, is a colorless but pungent, poisonous gas. It forms when nitrogen oxides belched by passenger cars, delivery trucks and factories from all over Southern California blow inland and cook in the hot summer sun to form a toxic brew. Ozone impairs breathing, and prolonged exposure has been shown to damage lungs and cause premature death.

Southwest County's air quality trend is based on readings taken through Sept. 20 of the past three years at a Lake Elsinore air quality monitoring station that the district has used for many years.

The area now also has a second station that measures pollution, after the district installed instruments east of Temecula at Lake Skinner in summer 2010. That station has recorded 13 days of ozone violations in 2011.

Temecula and Murrieta residents have long contended the air they breathe is cleaner than the air farther north in Lake Elsinore, and the first-year numbers for the Lake Skinner station seemed to indicate that. But Atwood said it is too early to draw long-term conclusions.

"We definitely would have to have several years of data to make that kind of comparison," Atwood said in a telephone interview.

However, a local consultant who formerly worked as a scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the numbers confirm that the air is cleaner the farther south one goes.

"That shows that the Temecula air shed is definitely distinct from the Lake Elsinore air shed," said David Gemmill, who lives in the Redhawk community of Temecula.

Agreeing with that sentiment, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone said, "Don't forget, we get a breeze out of Oceanside every day that gives us a swath of clean air."

Readings at the new Lake Skinner station compare favorably with those at other inland areas in the vast air basin of Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties that is monitored by the district. For example, the district recorded 70 bad air days at Riverside, 21 at Indio, 16 at Pomona and 13 at Azusa, both in Los Angeles County, Atwood said.

Throughout the region, the air quality has been on a par with 2010.

Atwood said that through the first part of the week, there were 96 days when at least one station in the four counties logged unhealthy ozone levels, compared with 99 such days at this time last year.

"On the days when we have had exceedences this year, it seems to be a little more widespread," Atwood said. "That's why you may see one particular location, such as Elsinore, having a few more days this year than last year. In addition, there have been several days when the meteorology was conductive to forming smog and keeping it trapped close to the ground."

According to WeatherCurrents.com, Lake Elsinore has had 36 days of triple-digit temperatures so far in 2011, compared with 32 for all of last year.

"I'm kind of surprised, because it was cooler earlier," Gemmill said, when told of the upswing in ozone violations. But the heat struck with a vengeance in mid-August, he said, and has continued through September.

Terry Roberts, area director for the American Lung Association of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, said residents shouldn't be overly concerned about this year's decline in air quality, because the long-term trend is toward improvement.

Atwood said emissions of pollutants are still declining, and that will gradually translate into fewer bad-air days.

"Even if we did nothing, which is not an option, we'd continue to see reductions because of the rules that are in place already," Atwood said. "The new cars are much cleaner than the new cars of 10 years ago, and probably 1,000 to 2,000 times cleaner than the ones sold in the '60s. You have this natural turnover of the motor vehicle fleet, and when old cars eventually die and get scrapped ... they get replaced by newer cars that are cleaner."

On the other hand, the standards have been getting tougher and will get tougher still.

"The medical evidence has just been piling higher and higher, demonstrating that the current standard is not adequate to protect public health," Atwood said.

And it will take radical lifestyle changes to deliver consistently clean air to Southern California, he said.

Atwood said the region will have to move in a big way to vehicles such as electric cars that emit no or very little pollution, in order to meet the elusive federal standards.

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