Los Angeles Air: How Bad or Good Is It?

(As Printed in The Los Angeles Downtown News)

By Dr. Rick Morris

It was another Thursday evening as I squeezed in a workout before meeting some friends for dinner. But today, rather than doing my laps in the rooftop pool or using the machines in the gym, I decided to attempt a run through the streets of downtown. The rules were simple, if the light was red, turn right and if it was green, cross the street or turn left. I figured I’d eventually end up back home. Besides, I missed my after work runs on the beach where I lived last year.

But, after this run I didn’t feel so well. It was rush hour and I seemed to run behind an endless parade of busses. When I finished, I questioned whether I should stick to my treadmill and forgo the streets. How about my rooftop swims? Should I even leave my windows open in my loft, or should I close them? I love living in downtown, but how do I deal with the air quality?

I called Sam Atwood, spokesman for the Air Quality Management District (AQMD). He confirmed that the South Coast region, comprised of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, had the worse air in the country. But, he quickly added that it steadily improved over the last thirty years, especially in downtown L.A.. The pollution in the Los Angeles Basin has migrated east to San Bernardino and Santa Clarita. In fact, downtown did not exceed the federal standards for ground ozone levels throughout 2006 compared to Central San Bernardino (69 days) and Santa Clarita (47 days).

But that’s not the whole story. According NACAA, The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is the worse pollutant since it carries toxins deep into our lungs and increases the incidences of cancers as well as lung and heart disease. Diesel engines produce the vast majority of PM 2.5 and is responsible for over 125,000 cancers cases in the U.S. and 16,250 in Los Angeles. According to the AQMD, it causes over 5,000 premature deaths/year in our four county region alone. Although downtown failed to meet federal clean air standards for this pollutant only 3% of the days on an annual basis, its “annual average levels” were just above the limit for the federal’s and 25% above the state’s acceptability standards.

But, before packing up and running back to the “burbs”, let’s put things in perspective. Downtown was ranked better than most areas in our four county region especially Metropolitan Riverside and San Bernardino Counties (see Fig 1).

The other pollutant which is most damaging to us is Ozone. While it keeps out ultraviolet rays and prevents global warming when it’s high in the atmosphere, it’s caustic and blisters our lung tissue when inhaled at ground level. Downtown has not exceeded federal ozone standards (but not the tougher state standards) throughout 2006 and compares favorably to most areas in our basin (Fig. 2).

Another harmful pollutant, considered less dangerous than ozone and PM 2.5, is the large particulate matter over 10 microns (PM10). While downtown only exceeded the state air standard 5% of the days per year, it exceeded the state’s “average annual basis” levels by 50% (there is no longer a federal standard for PM10). Still, downtown is better than most areas in our four county region (Fig 3).

Carbon Monoxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulfur Dioxide, Sulfates and Lead all fall below the federal standards and currently do not pose as significant of a health hazard to most of us.

Actions We Can Take To Lower Our Exposure

Learn the day’s Air Quality Index (AQI) in your area. Call 800-CUT-SMOG, go online to www.AirNow.gov or look at the Los Angeles Time’s back page of the California section.

The AQI is a grade of either Good, Moderate, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups or Unhealthy. The federal limit for acceptable health is only Good or Moderate. The AQI score for each pollutant may be listed, but the overall AQI is determined by the single highest pollutant that day (usually Ozone or PM 2.5).

Therefore, when deciding whether to leave your windows open or whether your “cardio” should be outside or inside, check the AQI. If it’s good, have at it. An AQI of Moderate is usually fine for most people, but beyond that you may want to think twice, especially those that are sensitive to pollutants. The American Lung Association describes sensitive people as “children, the elderly, people with breathing problems including asthma, people with cardiovascular diseases, and adults who are active outdoors, including outdoor workers and healthy exercisers.” In other words, none of us should be exercising strenuously outside when the AQI is beyond moderate. It may also be advisable to close your window, put on the fan and make sure your air filter is clean.

Still, some will be more sensitive than others. Luckily there are relatively few days in downtown that are beyond moderate. But the risk should be taken seriously even for those who consider themselves healthy. Ozone and PM 2.5 not only irritate and damage the lungs, but can also trigger asthma and heart attacks.

Exercising in the morning and avoiding street runs during rush hour traffic are both good pollution lowering ideas (I should have realized that sooner). You might even feel better about leaving your windows open if you’re on the twentieth floor rather than the first, but according to Patricia Rey of the Air Resources Board, while this is probably true, there is too little information to confirm this.

But congratulations to L.A. Metro. Our transit system is an important reason why downtown’s air has cleaned up. According to Jose Ubaldo of the L.A. Metro, 95% of their busses use Compressed Natural Gas (they used to be diesel) which keeps their exhaust nearly free of particulates and very low in hydrocarbons (that produces ozone). The sides of their buses proudly state, “The Nation’s Largest Clean-Air Fleet”.

According to the AQMD, while our trucks and manufacturing plants in the South Coast cannot run on diesel with less than 15 ppm of sulphur (sulphur in fuel produces PM 2.5), the ships in our ports use fuel with sulphur that’s 27,000 ppm. The AQMD reports that L.A.’s cancer risks are up to 40 times greater due to the lack of emission standards on these vessels. But, the federal government, through the EPA, has the final word according to NACAA, and ironically will not allow California to require these ships to use the cleaner fuels.

Well so much for my rush hour run. Even if downtown’s pollution has improved and is better than much of the south coast basin, we still have an air pollution problem that has caused possibly more cancers and deaths then all of our past wars. So, I’ll skip my rush hour run on the street and glance on the web to determine whether I should exercise outside. And, I’ll vote for politicians that take the air we breathe seriously. Maybe one day we’ll have electric trolleys, diesels will be a thing of the past and looking at the paper to determine whether we should leave our windows open, will be just an old man’s story we tell our grandchildren.


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Rick H. Morris, D.C., C.C.S.P., Q.M.E., A.B.A.A.H.P.

1243 7th Street, Suite B, Santa Monica, California 90401
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