Just how bad is LA air? The worst

(April 27, 2011)


April 27, 2011

Los Angeles retained the title of worst air in the nation - but the region has markedly improved, according to a report to be released today by the American Lung Association.

The advocacy organization doles out letter grades each year to the dirtiest and cleanest counties and cities in the nation, with Los Angeles earning an F in all categories and landing at the top of the list of worst air pollution in the country.

The good news, however, is that the region has reduced its average number of high ozone days from 189.5 in 2000 to 91.5 in the 2007-2009 State of the Air report.

"Many cities, including Los Angeles, had the fewest number of bad air days in this report since we began tracking this," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the American Lung Association in California.

That's little consolation to Jesse Marquez, a lifelong Wilmington resident who lives four blocks from the Port of Los Angeles. A 2009 University of California study found children living and attending schools in this area suffer disproportionately high rates of pollution-related asthma.

"The air in Wilmington is terrible," said Marquez, who 10 years ago founded an organization called Coalition for a Safe Environment. "It always smells. The closer you live to the port, the worse it is. I think the people here have sort of grown accustomed to breathing it."

Wilmington, parts of Long Beach, Carson, San Pedro and other county areas are situated in a hub of pollution from oil refineries and the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where hundreds of diesel trucks come and go each day.

The biggest contributors to bad air, health officials said, are indeed fuel emissions from cars, trucks, trains and buses, along with stationary sources such as the refineries and factories.

"What we really need is to transition away from petroleum fuels," Holmes-Gen said. "The movement of goods and other mobile sources are really key."

The report highlighted the effects of pollution on children, whose developing lungs are more vulnerable to fine particles in the air, and those with chronic conditions. Of the nearly 10million residents of the Los Angeles area, 165,892 children and 576,310 adults have asthma, the report found.

Low-income and minority residents also tend to be disproportionately affected by bad air, officials said. Many of the worst areas for air quality are situated along rail corridors, freeways, factories and refineries.

"It's really important to look beyond the grades and look at how this is affecting people," said Jane Warner, president and CEO of the American Lung Association. "Air pollution is making people sick and it is cutting lives short."

Marquez cited the example of his uncle, who died of lung cancer five years ago. He was not a smoker and never worked in a manufacturing industry.

"People are suffering," he said. "Their families are suffering."

The Lung Association measures two of the most widespread types of pollutants: ozone, a gas molecule that reacts with fuel sources in the environment; and particle pollution, a toxic mixture of tiny solids and liquids that can sometimes pass through the lung tissue and directly into the bloodstream.

Of the two sources, ozone is more prevalent. Los Angeles had an average of 91.5 elevated ozone days in the study period and 20 days of high particle pollution.

California regions by far outnumbered other areas in the country for bad air. Behind Los Angeles on the list of cities with the worst air were Bakersfield, the Visalia-Porterville region, Fresno and Sacramento.

By contrast, the cleanest air in the country can be found in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Officials with the Lung Association encouraged consumers to buy cleaner-burning cars and cities to make better planning decisions. They also suggested lobbying federal lawmakers to keep the federal Clean Air Act in place and fully fund the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Some members in Congress are proposing changes that could weaken the progress we've made," said Paul Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the association. "We need strong public policy to protect the nation's health."