Siege of Smog Grips Los Angeles

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With 57 straight days of unhealthy air, officials are urging some to stay inside.

Last week I was visiting Los Angeles, and the mountains had disappeared. What the heck?

Having grown up there I remember plenty of summer days tainted with so much smog, that from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the mountains themselves could not be seen. I remember how our eyes burned and our lungs literally ached from the pollution after playing outside – business as usual back then.

But during visits home over the last few decades, the smog problem did not seem nearly as bad as it did in my youth; however, alas, this year the mountains were once again rendered invisible by a cloak of smog.

As it turns out, L.A. has had 58 straight days of unhealthy air, according to the California Air Resources Board. The city has exceeded the national 8-hour standard level every day since June 22.

Experts from the University of Southern California (USC) explain that late summer is a bad time of year for air pollution in the city of angels. An unfortunate mix of hot temperatures, slack winds, and high emissions create a perfect storm of mucky air; a medley of soot, dust, combustion gases and photochemical ozone. The USC experts confirm my observations, noting that "L.A.'s infamous brown haze has receded over 20 years, but worsened slightly in the past few years."

"Late summer is a challenging time for air quality, and it’s likely to get worse with a warming climate," says Ed Avol, a professor of clinical preventive medicine and chief of the Division of Environmental Health at USC's Keck School of Medicine. "We have ideal conditions here in L.A. for ozone due to long, hot, sunny stagnant days. We tend to see these multi-day weather events, where smog builds up during the day and doesn’t completely blow away overnight. Some pollution carries over into the next day, sloshing back and forth across the basin – inland by day and back toward the coast at night – so it cooks more and more and builds up over the course of a few days.”

Southern California should have it all – it's got beaches and mountains and gorgeous wilderness, and a progressive state government leading the charge in terms of sustainability. And indeed, the quality has improved dramatically over the past 20 years, but dirty air days have increased in the most recent years as gains against smog stall. And as USC notes, "While L.A. air is generally better than a generation ago, the latest science shows health effects occur at lower levels and affect more organs than once thought."

The Los Angeles Times explains that the warmer temperatures brought about by climate change make smog harder to control because they speed up the chemical reactions that form ozone, leading to ozone pollution worsening again.

Meanwhile, the current administration somehow does not seem all that interested in clean air. As The Times notes:

"President Trump, has sought to roll back an array of air quality and climate change regulations and taken other steps to undermine the science underpinning them. His administration’s move to weaken the nation’s auto emissions standards, while taking away California’s ability to set its own tougher limits, could further hamstring the ability to curb vehicle pollution in the state and 13 others that follow its rules."

With a warming planet turbo-charging the formation of pollution and an administration that tends to side with the fossil fuel industry, there's no telling how bad L.A.'s smog problem might become.

Thankfully, California is finding some smart workarounds. Earlier this summer, the state and a consortium of automakers went behind the president's back and agreed on a voluntary framework to reduce emissions. And it can't come soon enough. Fifty-eight straight days of air pollution, mountains hidden by smog, kids with aching lungs, abysmal health effects in general and the exacerbation of climate change – something's got to give.