Dec 20, 2014

The Particulate Matter Problem: Pollution In the LA Basin

What does air pollution mean to you? Like most, you probably would answer “dirty air.” But what makes air dirty? Perhaps from the window seat of a plane landing at LAX, you have wondered about the floating grey blanket of haze that hangs over much of the LA basin. You might wonder, “Do I breathe that?”

gl003826Yes, you probably do breathe it. According to recent studies by Cal State Fullerton and the California Air Resources Board, dirty air costs the California economy $28 billion annually and contributes to the premature deaths of 9,000 people. Los Angeles continues to have the notorious reputation as the most polluted city in the country. Surprisingly, more than 90% of the people living in the LA Basic breathe air that threatens their health.

Why does LA have this reputation? What makes Los Angeles air so polluted? What can we do about it? To answer these questions requires a basic understanding of the different types of air pollution.

Simply, there are many things floating around in the air. Though many joke that in Los Angeles “at least you can see the air you’re breathing,” the truth is most of what is floating in our air, tiny particulate matter, we cannot see. These microscopic particles are the biggest contributor to ill health — and dirty air.

Particles come in a variety of sizes, shapes and flavors, but scientists divide them into two primary groups. There are many differences that define the difference between the groups. One difference is size. Big particles, between 2.5 and 10 micrometers, or about 25-100 times thinner than human hair, are called PM10—particulate matter up to 10 micrometers. These are course particles and are caused by smoke, dirt and dust from factories, farming and roads or mold, spores and pollen.

Small particles, on the other hand, are less than 2.5 micrometers, or 100 times thinner than human hair, are called PM2.5. These finer particles are more harmful and include toxic organic compounds and heavy metals. They are caused by burning fossil fuels and smelting, purifying and processing metals. Small particles are lighter, linger in the air longer and travel greater distances than course particles.

While there are other contributors when measuring overall air quality (AQI), it is particle air pollution that has been linked with serious health problems. This is because particulate matter travels deep into the respiratory system, often sticking to the sides of the airway. Those who breathe by their mouth or exercise allow particles to travel deeper into the lungs. Symptoms of breathing dirty air include coughing, wheezing shortness of breath and aggravated asthma. This can also lead heart and lung disease or death.

To address the serious affect of particulate matter on public health, the Environmental Protection Agency has established air quality standards for maximum amount of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) for designated regions. Levels are measured and recorded for both 24-hour and annual periods.

Though these standards were first set in 1997, in 2004 the EPA identified that most the Los Angeles basin as not attaining the standard and exceeding maximum levels. Also identified were most of the counties in the San Joaquin Valley, yet for the most part, the rest of California had met the EPA requirements. In 2006, the EPA strengthened the PM2.5 standards and set a compliance date to attain the levels no later than April 2015.

Contributing to poor air quality and higher than average particulate matter pollution are the two busiest seaports in the country. With more goods moved in and out of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the LA basin is subject to higher emissions and increased pollution from not only the ports, but also the increased movement of goods by truck and rail.

The California Air Resource Board (CARB) in addressing the EPA standards and practices outlined by the Federal Clean Air Act, have developed a state implementation plan (SIP) which included a number of regulatory changes designed to lower emissions so that California will attain the PM2.5 standard before the deadline.

Key to the SIP, are several initiatives related to goods movement sources, which are identified as the largest contributor to PM2.5 in the LA basin. Initiatives include implementation of shore power for ships, port modernization, smog check improvements and standards for off-road equipment, including both industrial/construction and recreational and heavy-use trucks.

In addition, keenly aware of its contribution to lower air quality in the LA Basin, the ports established the San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP). The CAAP offers a number of programs, incentives and grants for port and local business to contribute to cleaning the air. Working together with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Air Resources Board and South Coast Air Quality Management District, the ports have developed a sweeping, aggressive strategy to significantly reduce the health risks posed by air pollution from port-related sources.

Many of these initiatives of both the CARB’s SIP and the Port’s CAAP have been in place over the last several years. As of March 2011, the ARB noted that California is meeting its clean air commitments. However, it noted that emissions related to goods movement are lower due to the recession. Businesses have reduced employment, extended work force hours and sold assets, including motor fleets. As the economy improves and businesses begin to invest and consumer activity increases, emissions will be affected and PM2.5 levels will increase.

It is likely that Southern California and those counties in the LA basin will attain the required EPA levels of PM2.5, however with public health at stake, it’s important establish more aggressive clean air goals and to look for further opportunities where we can improve air quality and decrease PM2.5 levels so that we can all live, work and play while breathing cleaner air.