Pale Blue Dot: California needs to do more to address its constant smog problem

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

On July 8, 1943, a gray haze crept through Los Angeles and sent the city into a frenzy. There were car accidents all over town. Children were sent to school in gas masks. Even Peaches, a donkey at the Griffith Park Zoo, was outfitted with some stylish goggles to prevent his eyes from watering. The Los Angeles Times referred to it as a “daylight dim out;” no one knew the reason for this change in air quality and politicians were worried. Some thought it was a gas attack from Japan, as the United States was entering its second year of heavy warfare in World War II. When it became clear that the Japanese weren’t the culprits, the situation was blamed on butadiene, then sulfur, but neither were correct. All of these dramatic effects were the result of a particularly bad bout of good old fashioned California smog. Though the city has not been shocked by smog in several decades, it is in danger of being taken by surprise yet again — because even though the state has made big strides in fighting air pollution, smog is on the rise yet again.

Smog — the hazy air pollution that clings to downtown skyscrapers most mornings, reduces visibility in the surrounding mountains and gives L.A. sunsets their vibrance — is a weirdly normalized part of city life. Its prevalence has diminished significantly since that day in 1943, and in fact, Los Angeles’ air is far cleaner today, largely thanks to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. But the city still consistently holds the title of worst smog in the country, according to the American Lung Association. In addition, smog prevalence is slowly creeping upward, meaning that we, as a region, must crack down on smog again.

Though the word is a portmanteau of “smoke” and “fog,” smog actually refers to ozone, a chemical that is produced when industrial emissions are chemically altered by heat and sunlight. Breathing ozone triggers an inflammation in the body, which is linked to a whole host of health effects. Short-term exposure can lead to difficulty breathing and chest pain, respiratory infections and increased risk of asthma;  long-term exposure has been shown to increase risk of cognitive decline, heart disease and cancer. It’s a clear negative contributor to human health, not to mention the health of plants and animals, which is why it poses a threat.

After that strange day in 1943, regulators figured out some of the major contributors to air pollution in greater L.A.: factories, backyard trash fires, farming operations and oil refineries. But the main contributor to air pollution in Southern California is the millions of cars and trucks that drive through it every day. In 1952, Caltech professor Arie Haagen-Smit wrote about the clear car-smog connection, but was vilified for his findings until people slowly began to accept that the big-bodied vehicles that defined the city were actively hurting it. It turned out that when a dense, car-loving population is combined with a dozen major freeways, pollution-trapping mountain ranges and hot, stagnant weather, the result is a stubborn, constant layer of smog. Though it is possible in any urbanized area, the geography and conditions surrounding L.A. seem to make it particularly susceptible.

Over the next 30 years, statewide tailpipe emissions standards, industrial regulations and mandatory vehicle smog checks drove down air pollution, setting an example of eco-conscious legislation that the entire country followed. It was a major leap in the fight against pollution. But today, some of that progress seems to have been undone.

Without a doubt, the air is far cleaner today than it was in the last century. In 2017, Los Angeles had 145 days of unhealthy air, according to the AQMD. Compare that to over 200 days of unhealthy air in the late 1980s, and it is clear that progress has been made. Peak smog levels have lowered as well, meaning that even when the air gets polluted, it’s not as polluted as it used to be. But it seems that the numbers are going up again. There were only 132 ozone violation days in 2016 and 113 in 2015, and though the year isn’t over yet, 2018 has already broken records for having the longest consecutive streak of days with ozone violations after 87 days, nearly three months, went by without a day of clean enough air.

What is so strange about the upswing in air pollution over the last few years is that it is concurrent with a massive slashing in greenhouse gas emissions. In July, the California Air Resources Board proudly announced that the state’s emissions had dropped 13 percent since their peak in 2004, back to the levels that they were in 1990. So while smog-causing emissions are going down, the incidence of smog itself is going up.

Strange, until global warming is brought into the picture. You see, even as emissions have slowed, the area has been subject to more heat waves and higher average temperatures. Because heat aids in the formation of ozone, lower emissions can still create more pollution, all because of climate change.

The fight against smog in Southern California has been long, but generally successful. Now that the area’s progress seems to have faltered, it is time to revise the playbook. Stricter regulations must be applied to industrial emissions, especially from the oil and transportation industries, and citizens and business owners alike should be given incentives to switch from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric and hybrid. Additionally, the state must continue to do all it can to stop climate change, before it negates all of the hard work that has already been put into the battle against air pollution.

Kylie Harrington is a junior majoring in journalism. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Pale Blue Dot,” runs every other Monday.