L.A. Nuts
This Is Our Air: As Dirty As It Gets
By Joe Dungan
May 4, 2007

Good news, everyone. Good news. The American Lung Association just released its annual air pollution ranking and we’re on top again. The good news is that it didn’t make much of a splash in the papers this week. The other good news is that we overtook Bakersfield in the dogfight for dirtiest air in the country, meaning we can now scrap our “Hey, at least we’re not Bakersfield!” slogan we’d been tossing around.

People like to bag on L.A.’s cars and industry for our air pollution. While those are the chief culprits, our geography actually doomed our air from the start. Los Angeles was called “Valley of Smoke” by the region’s Native Americans long before white land prospectors made it out here to advertise it to Midwesterners as the place to cure their respiratory ailments.

The geography at issue is the mountains. All our smog gets pushed into it by the onshore flow, then stops because it can’t go above the mountains. The reason it can’t go above the mountains is because it is trapped by our inversion layer. Our inversion layer is a meteorological phenomenon marked by a layer of dense, cooler air stuck beneath warmer, lighter air. Actually, phenomenon probably isn’t the right word. It’s more like an affliction. The dense layer below is the layer that contains all the smog, and it doesn’t rise up and disperse the smog into the rest of the atmosphere. The only difference between today and back in the days of the Tongva and the Chumash tribes is that it comes from industry instead of campfires.

Anyone who’s ever flown in or out of Los Angeles knows that our inversion layer is best viewed from an airplane. You don’t even need to be a meteorologist to see it. Several hundred feet above the ground, one can see a distinct line: blue above it, brown below it. The only consolation is that you’re likely to forget that you’re breathing air in a commercial airplane. Sure, our air causes cancer, emphysema, asthma, and other nice things, but no one has ever spent two hours breathing L.A. smog and caught a cold.

Upon trapping all that smog, the sun beats down on it all day, chemically converting it into ozone. Twenty miles up, we need ozone to keep the sun from frying us to death. But we’ve been destroying it ever since we learned how to make Styrofoam coffee cups. Down here, inhaling it causes edema. And we make it by the truckload every day.

Over the centuries, the severity of the air pollution has fluctuated, but the smog has never gone away. It was actually worse in the 1940s than it is today. One day in 1943, the smog had grown so thick and noxious that visibility downtown was reduced to three blocks. City leaders were so alarmed that they thought it was a chemical attack staged by the Japanese. Turned out to be a chemical being produced by the gas company’s downtown plant.

Things have gotten better since then. Industry began to get regulated so as to prevent episodes like “gas attack day” from ever occurring again. We kept raising the bar so that the air would stop causing headaches and nausea and other sensations better left to the entertainment industry. And Los Angeles hasn’t had a stage three smog alert since 1974. (In response to that unfortunate day, Governor Ronald Reagan urged locals to drive slower to reduce car emissions.) That didn’t occur in L.A., but in Upland, a city out in what we blithely call the Inland Empire, our literal and figurative dumping ground to the east of us that gets all of our day-old smog because there are few mountains to prevent it from blowing out there. That was, in fact, the last stage three smog alert in U.S. history, but I doubt anyone in Upland brags about it.

Still, there remained rare occasions when things were substantially bad. There were a handful of days in my San Fernando Valley childhood where the air was so toxic that we were ordered to breathe as little as possible during recess and lunch. We were not allowed to take handballs and kickballs out, and playground supervisors ordered us not to run. Twice a day, we sat around in little clusters, occasionally getting up to walk over to some other cluster to see their version of doing nothing. Looking back, it was probably good practice for office life.

The only time the smog blows away is when it blows away -- that is, when the Santa Anas or some other strong wind kicks up. (By “away,” of course, I mean “to the Inland Empire.”) These winds are powerful enough to eliminate the inversion layer entirely for a time, thus blowing nice, clean Pacific Ocean air over us. After those winds, when there’s trash all over everyone’s front yard, the air is beautiful. The only thing to worry about then is sunburn. The smog is so dirty and so evenly spread out that it acts as a nice ultraviolet ray protector. I call it our industrial sunscreen. When it’s here, it can cause eye irritation in the uninitiated. When it’s gone, it’s so bright outside that the sunlight actually hurts my eyes.

The most effective way we regulate smog is with regulations. The Air Quality Management District has a Web site devoted to the subject. Anyone who wants to start a business that pollutes has to go through the AQMD for the proper permits and comprehension of the rules. I’d explain the rules but they’re so involved that I was afraid that I’d die of old age if I actually tried to read them all. Maybe all those rules have led to confusion, because last time I checked, the air still looked like vomit in gas form.

Then again, maybe the AQMD just doesn’t work so well. They’ve incurred million-dollar fines twice.

Whether you’re running a polluting business or not, you probably own a car, which means you have to get a smog certificate for it. Los Angeles may be the place that made “smog” into a verb. Everyone’s had to get a smog certificate at one time or another, a lifeless, biennial ritual in which you pay someone 30 bucks (plus an $8.25 certificate fee) to spend 15 minutes running your engine so that a machine can measure tailpipe exhaust. I know it’s not a very scientific sample, but I’ve never heard of anyone failing a smog test. Frankly, I’d like to know how much less pollution would be in the air if we didn’t have to go pay someone $38.25 every two years to run our engines for 15 minutes.

If this seems arbitrary, consider the owners of cars that are six or fewer years old. They do not have to get smog checks because their cars are so new, and, presumably, their engines burn cleaner. Therefore, instead of $38.25 every two years, these owners only have to pay the California Department of Motor Vehicles $12 every year because a bureaucracy isn’t a bureaucracy if it isn’t gouging everyone for something.

For all that smelly bureaucracy, however, the DMV does encourage the use of cleaner-burning cars. Electric and hybrid cars are not subject to smogging at all. And drivers of most such cars qualify for access to carpool lanes on the freeway even when they’re the sole occupant of the car. All they have to do is send a form to the DMV -- and eight dollars to cover costs surrounding the sticker.

The DMV quickly ran out of stickers -- and is unable to print more unless the state assembly raises the ceiling on how many can be issued.

In The Control of Nature, John McPhee writes of man’s efforts to peacefully coexist with a few of Earth’s more gargantuan natural forces. Despite our tirelessness and intelligence, any successes are transitory. The smog in Los Angeles might well have been a chapter in his book. Try as we might, we keep finding ourselves breathing the worst air in the nation. Regulations keep getting tighter, inducements keep increasing, consciousness keeps getting raised. But the geography and the comfortable climate it induces, like so many other things out here in the land of dreams, are killing us. In the end, for all our tirelessness and intelligence, no amount of passionate progressive ideology will move mountains.

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