Smog Levels Lower in Los Angeles

Dear EarthTalk: I was in Los Angeles recently and the smog was not nearly as bad as when I visited 15 years ago. Is it really better now, and if so, how did it get that way? Or did I just happen to visit on a good day?

— Marjorie Hicke, Atlanta, GA

Los Angeles is almost as famous for its choking smog—a haze of ground-level ozone and particulate pollution that can aggravate asthma and other respiratory problems—as for its Hollywood stars. The reason so much smog forms there is because the city is in a low basin surrounded by mountains, with millions of cars and industrial sites spewing emissions into the air.

But thanks to tougher state and federal air quality standards, L.A. residents can breathe easier than they’ve been able to for decades. According to the non-profit Environment California, air pollution from cars and trucks across the state has decreased since the 1970s by more than 85 percent, with peak smog levels in the city of Los Angeles itself dropping some 70 percent. Meanwhile, California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) has been tracking smog levels in the area since 1976, and reports the number of ozone advisories—where residents are advised to stay indoors due to unhealthy local accumulations of smog—fell from a high of 184 days in 1977 to between zero and a few days a year now.

“California’s efforts to reduce air pollution from cars and trucks have made the state’s air cleaner than it has been in decades and Californians are healthier as a result,” says Bernadette Del Chiaro, Environment California’s clean energy advocate. This is especially notable because the number of miles driven in California doubled since the 1970s even though emissions significantly dropped—meaning that vehicles have gotten considerably more fuel efficient over the years. “The technologies found on new car lots today were practically unimaginable even 20 years ago, much less 40 years ago,” adds Del Chiaro. “Yet thanks to strong policies, California has pushed the auto industry to innovate and engineer a greener, cleaner car.”

According to Environment California’s research, a typical new car today is more than 99 percent cleaner burning than its 1960s counterpart. An older car produces about a ton of smog-forming pollution every 100,000 miles; a new car generates only 10 pounds over the same distance. This improvement saves consumers money at the pump as well as health care expenses and lives due to reduced pollution loads. And a new generation of hybrid and electric cars is driving automotive efficiency to even newer heights.

Updated federal air quality standards implemented in 2008 have also helped reduce ozone alert days in California and elsewhere. But despite this progress, environmental and public health advocates are urging federal lawmakers to raise air quality standards even higher. The goal is to get ground level ozone, a chief contributor to smog, no more prevalent than the range of 60-70 parts per billion averaged over eight hours, as unanimously recommended by an independent board of air experts and scientists created under the Clean Air Act to provide periodic review and recommendations on air quality standards.

The Obama administration reportedly considered updating the 2008 standard last summer but decided to table the decision until 2013 given economic priorities. Let’s hope that the economy turns around enough in the meantime so that industry won’t push back too hard against raising the federal standards.

CONTACTS: Environment California; AQMD.

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