Posts Tagged ‘Smogtown’

Reappearing mountains and good news for glaciers

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

* A little stroll down hydrocarbon lane by one of our favorite historians, D.J. Waldie. If you haven’t read him, you should, because he brings, with a buttery, meditative touch, searing insights of surburbia and things lost and found. And that includes the San Gabriels. Meet D.J. and his pal, Randy, in his KCET post.

” … Because of smog, Randy and I grew up not seeing the mountains that ring the basin except on exceptional days when, after rain and strong winds, for a day (or only a few hours) you could stand at the end of the Belmont Pier in Long Beach and see Catalina to the southwest, Saddleback Mountain in the Santa Ana range to the east, San Gorgonio to the northeast, the San Gabriels to the north, and the headlands of Palos Verdes to the west. And now and with increasing frequency and on the least exceptional days, some or most of this gigantic panorama can be seen from the streets that I walk each morning. Something has changed. It isn’t enough – not even very much much, really. Still, you can see the mountains, purple, moss green, and lunar gray. And I suppose that means something …”

* As Chip prepares to release his next book, as un-environmental as they come, he reminisces with this photo about the wonderful event the L.A Public Library’s Aloud program threw for the book. Warm nostalgia aside, he is still un-worthy of running a competent Power Point. Photo from Flicker.

* Is there a more powerful way to capture warming CO2 gases? USC researchers think so. Sand and plastic are looking possibly heroic, here. From the L.A. Times environmental blog (run by the smart and friend Dean Kuipers)

” … The new process, detailed in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, claims to have the highest carbon dioxide removal capacity for real-world conditions, where humidity and other factors often hinder common capture methods. This has huge implications for carbon removal, as well as for new carbon products. “Right now, the short term is that we’re making CO2-free air from this technology. For our applications in fuel cells and batteries and things like that,” says G.K. Surya Prakash, a professor at USC and director of the Lokar Hydrocarbon Research Institute there who is part of the study. “Ultimately, I think that these kinds of materials, if they are developed on a massive scale, it can extract CO2 from point sources like coal-burning power plants, cement plants, breweries and stuff like that” …”

Holiday Season first annual point – counterpoint babble

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

* POINT: The Ontario International Airport is worse than Los Angeles City Hall’s red-haired stepchild. It’s more akin to the deserted, forlorn cousin promised housing in a garden shed. Glad folks are just learning this.

- From the L.A. Times: “After three decades of steady growth and earning a Forbes magazine nod as one of the nation’s top “alternative airports,” Ontario International is now among the fastest-declining midsize airports in the country. A pillar of pride for the Inland Empire, which rode the housing boom to a colossal bust, the sprawling facility owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles lost a third of its 7.2 million annual passengers between 2007 and 2010. The airport is on track to lose an additional 200,000 this year — setting it back to 1987 levels, when Ronald Reagan was president and the Dow was below 3,000. Nationally, only Cincinnati is shedding travelers at a faster pace …”

* COUNTER-POINT: (A.K.A. first to the punch): my piece on this subject from way back when.

- “Thirty-six years ago, during the money-loathing Summer of Love, Los Angeles got control of the air at a bead-like price. For $1.2-million and future concessions, the city bought a postage-stamp airport in the dusty flatlands of the Inland Empire in the era before the subdivisions and chain-malls invaded. Though dry in detail, if not colonial in result, the 1967-transaction provided each side with something immediately useful. Los Angeles International Airport secured a backup landing strip for those nights coastal fog (or smog) socked in its runways. Ontario inherited a strapping big-city patriarch that could lure commercial jetliners to the scruffy, San Bernardino County outpost while chasing federal dollars to expand it. Ontario’s airfield was barely more than parched earth and booster dreams when L.A. came along. It had taken World War II training needs to convert the dirt runways there to concrete, and defense contractors after that to bulk up the facilities. The first passenger terminal, one converted from a hybrid chapel-theater-canteen, didn’t rise until the 1960s. It was bush league at best …”

* POINT: The cities of Glendale, Burbank and northwest Los Angeles have tried their level best to keep hexavalent chromium (chrome-six, “The Erin Brockovich chemical) under state standards by either diluting the tainted fluid with fresh suppies, shutting off compromised acquifers or just dumping the stuff into the Los Angeles River. Research in Glendale, meantime, is underway to figure out how to remove the industrial contaminant point blank. This is an enormous issue where the Cold War, environmental science, Superfund policies and municipal water management weave in and out of the water table pocked by decades of defense manufacturing (mainly Lockheed), chrome plating and other industrial work involving heavy metals. You just wouldn’t know it’s a crisis from the scant media coverage. Consider this short piece from the L.A. Times:

- “Although the City Council last week approved spending an additional $400,000 to continue research at two testing facilities — just two months after the council gave the green light to spend $550,000 in grant and state funding on more research — some city officials are getting antsy …”

* COUNTERPOINT: My article that launched a series and community hullaballoo about local chrome-six water contamination after I worked with the L.A. Times in the year-2000 exposing the problem. Sometimes, it seems like we all have dementia when it comes to remembering that there’s an unusually pernicious toxin infesting our water. Maybe it was the recession or terrorism that spurred us kick this can down the road? Or, environmental fatigue? Couldn’t be politics (insert laugh track) or the sheer magnitude of the issue.

(more…)

Save the EPA from Republican bomb-throwers with a Smogtown Op-Ed in the NY Times, and other green news

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

* A snippet from my editorial in today’s New York Times “Room for Debate” online roudtable about whether Republican presidential candidates calling for the EPA’s dissolution have a point or are just giving red-meat to a fatigued, job-hungry people:

” … In national politics, California may be seen as Exhibit A for over-regulating the environment. But anyone making that argument must ignore what the state was like before the Environmental Protection Agency. Its rules and enforcement have made California a livable, thriving state. Now, if you’re a Republican presidential candidate irate about America’s wheezy economy, it’s easy to go Red Queen and call for guillotining the E.P.A. Scapegoating regulators as job-killing obstructionists can pump up the faithful, but it doesn’t reflect well on America’s environmental maturity. None of the White House hopefuls mention the expected $2 trillion in health and environmental benefits from the Clean Air Act by 2020. Few of the greenhouse skeptics, in fact, even broach fresh air at all, perhaps because they hail from states where it was never toxic …”

Read our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, and you’ll see just how instrumental California’s smog epidemic was in galvanizing an environmental ethos that led to creation of the EPA itself. The effects of those untamed, brown-exhaust-blowing tailpipes spawned a bureaucracy.

And now for something completely greener, we think.

* San Joaquin Valley toxic dump agrees to spend $1 million to better manage hazardous waste. From the L.A. Times:

“A toxic waste dump near a San Joaquin Valley community plagued by birth defects has agreed to pay $400,000 in fines and spend $600,000 on laboratory upgrades needed to properly manage hazardous materials at the facility, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday. The penalties were part of a consent decree that capped an 18-month investigation by the EPA and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control into the Chemical Waste Management landfill about 3 1/2 miles southwest of Kettleman City, a community of 1,500 mostly low-income Latino farmworkers. Company records revealed at least 18 instances over the last six years in which toxic waste had to be excavated from the landfill after it was learned that the laboratory had mistakenly concluded the material met treatment standards, EPA officials said …”

* The California-led greenhosue gas cap-and-trade was supposed to be a shiney achievement of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration. It’s turned out to be something much more complicated, divisive and legally perilious than anyone believed. Still, the state Air Resources Board remains behind it through the court challenges and liberal backlash. Having covered the Anne Sholtz caper with the smog cap and trade here in Southern California, color me skeptical about how much a green market will achieve. Then again, this is the West Coast where we build the future day by day. From the L.A. Times:

“The California Air Resources Board voted to reaffirm its cap-and-trade plan Wednesday, a decision that puts the nation’s first-ever state carbon trading program back on track, for now. The on-again, off-again rules have been years in the making and are meant to complement AB 32, California’s landmark climate change law that mandates a reduction in carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020. The air board adopted a preliminary carbon trading plan in late 2008 but was sued by environmental justice groups in 2009. A San Francisco judge in March ordered the air board to more comprehensively analyze alternatives to the market-based trading system, such as a carbon tax or fee. In a unanimous vote in Sacramento on Wednesday, the board adopted the revised environmental analysis while still affirming its original decision. But the board’s vote may not forestall another legal challenge. The original plaintiffs argued in Wednesday’s hearing that the revised analysis still failed to adequately consider other options. UCLA law professor Cara Horowitz said “most assuredly” the matter would be back before the court. Board chief Mary Nichols said she has not always supported cap and trade in part because it would be difficult to administer. “I had my doubts,” she said, adding that many details remain to be hashed out. “It is a form of California leadership that involves some risk. This is still the most viable of the alternatives to achieve the goals of AB 32.” Originally scheduled for implementation next year, industry compliance with the cap-and-trade program will now take effect in 2013 …”

Smogtown set for e-book for Kindle and other mobile devices August 23. It’s a helluva, brown story for a warming age.

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Click here at amazon.com and let the journey begin

Some reasons to download it:

* Named one of 2008′s best environmental books by Booklist magazine

* Awarded silver medals at The Green Book Festival and Independent Book Publishers (IPPY) Awards. Winner of the Green Prize for Sustainable Literature from Santa Monica.

* Reviews

“[A] remarkably entertaining and informative chronicle of the birth and—so far—inexorable evolution of smog… This book is just amazing, a gripping story well told, with the requisite plucky scientists (including Arie Haagen-Smit, a Dutch biochemist who was “the Elvis of his field”), hapless politicians, and a nebulous biochemical villain who just will not be stopped.” –Booklist (Starred review)

“The history of smog has never been so sexy” — Los Angeles Times

“Smog in all its hazy-and sometimes humorous-permutations … a zany and provocative cultural history.” — Kirkus

“Finished with a particularly powerful, forward-looking epilogue, this friendly, accessible history should appeal to any American environmentalist.”– Publishers Weekly

“… a meticulous chronicle of the city’s signature airborne grime and of the civic and social forces that emerged to stop it … … The story of Smogtown is that of a city vying against time to reconcile incommensurables … ” — Bookforum

“The narrative that emerges is more than a tale of a region and a populace besieged by smog; it is also a parable for a nation beset by environmental and social problems … (a) well-researched cultural history” — Slate

“Writing in a hip, lively style, …[An] intriguing social history of an environmental problem that won’t go away. Recommended.” – Library Journal

“A well-documented, highly engaging, and widely relevant account of southern California’s battle with “the beast,” as the authors lovingly refer to smog. … Smogtown is not your typical “green’s” diatribe against big business and weak government. No, Jacobs and Kelly are much smarter-and fairer-than that” — Sustainablog

* From the dust jacket description:

“The smog beast wafted into downtown Los Angeles on July 26, 1943. Nobody knew what it was. Secretaries rubbed their eyes. Traffic cops seemed to disappear in the mysterious haze. Were Japanese saboteurs responsible? A reckless factory? The truth was much worse–it came from within, from Southern California’s burgeoning car-addicted, suburban lifestyle. Smogtown is the story of pollution, progress, and how an optimistic people confronted the epic struggle against airborne poisons barraging their hometowns. With wit, verve, and a fresh look at history, California based journalists Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly highlight the bold personalities involved, the corporate- tainted science, the terrifying health costs, the attempts at cleanup, and how the smog battle helped mold the modern-day culture of Los Angeles. There are scofflaws aplenty and dirty deals, plus murders, suicides, spiritual despair, and an ever-present paranoia about mass disaster. Brimming with historic photographs, forgotten anecdotes, and new revelations about our environmentally precarious present, Smogtown is a journalistic classic for the modern age.”

Green groups accuse EPA of apathy monitoring L.A. ozone levels

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

* Over the years, environmental lawsuits have frequently sought to force pollution authorities to invoke regulatiions more intensely, explain their actions, audit their programs or put the heat to polluters. Sometimes they succeed, often they do not, because courts often prove a poor method of guarding the environment and the people who depend on it. Either way, the lawyers are back again, this time with acccsations that Washington hasn’t adequately determined whether ozone limits are being met.

- From the L.A. Times blog:

“Environmental and public health groups filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday, saying the agency has failed to force officials to crack down on smog in the Los Angeles Basin. The suit contends the EPA missed a May deadline to, in effect, determine whether the ozone level in the region is hazardous to public health. Such a determination could trigger tougher limits on pollution from cars, trucks, ships and refineries. The EPA did not comment on the lawsuit, which was filed by Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, Desert Citizens Against Pollution, Communities for a Better Environment and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among other groups. A similar suit challenging whether San Joaquin Valley had met the ozone standard was filed Monday on behalf of the Sierra Club and Medical Advocates for Healthy Air. The Los Angeles area has a long history of elevated ozone levels, and the American Lung Assn., in its annual State of the Air report, recently determined that the region has the highest ozone level in the nation. “Angelenos continue to breathe smoggy air that makes people sick, forcing mothers to question whether to allow children to play outside on dirty air days,” said Adrian Martinez, an attorney for the NRDC. “These are choices mothers should not have to make.” Under the federal Clean Air Act, Congress established a one-hour standard for ozone pollution, a principal contributor to smog, and the EPA was to certify no later than May whether air districts had met the standard. If the EPA were to determine that the region does not meet the national standard, then the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the basin’s regulatory agency, would have one year to submit a clean-up plan …”

Stay tuned for the dockets. And read our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles for a smokestack more context and stories.

Cap and delay; the chromium tide. A mid-summer Smogtown roundup

Monday, July 18th, 2011

* California/West Coast greenhouse gas cap and trade on hold until 2013. Big surprise, here. The idea is controversial, poorly understood, largely unproven and being implemented during a historic election. Got juice?

- L.A. Times coverage:

“Facing continued litigation, California officials will delay enforcement of the state’s carbon-trading program until 2013, state Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols announced Wednesday. The delay in the cap-and-trade program, slated to take effect in January, is proposed because of the “need for all necessary elements to be in place and fully functional,” she said. But in testimony before a state Senate committee,Nichols said the postponement would not affect the stringency of the program or the amount of greenhouse gases that industries will be forced to cut by the end of the decade. Carbon-market executives mostly shrugged at the news. The air board “has given firms a breather, not a pass,” said Josh Margolis, chief executive of CantorCO2e, an emissions-trading company. “Companies will need to make the same reductions, but they will face a steeper slope.” The cap-and-trade program, championed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a centerpiece of the state’s landmark effort to cut planet-warming gases to 1990 levels by 2020. It accounts for a fifth of the planned cuts under the state’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. Under the program, 600 industrial facilities, including cement manufacturers, electrical plants and oil refineries, would cap their emissions in 2012, with that limit gradually decreasing over eight years. Several neighborhood organizations and environmental justice groups that focus on local pollution are fighting the program in court, saying it would allow industrial plants to avoid installing the strictest pollution controls. A San Francisco judge ruled in March that the air board had not sufficiently analyzed alternatives to the trading program, as required under California’s Environmental Quality Act. The agency appealed the decision, and an appeals court ruled last week that officials could continue working on the regulation pending the court decision. The board is drafting an analysis of alternatives, which is to be considered for adoption Aug. 24, Nichols said … In the wake of the failure of national climate legislation in Congress last year, California’s program would be North America’s biggest carbon market, three times larger than a utility-only system in the northeastern U.S. By 2016, about $10 billion in carbon allowances are expected to be traded through the California market, which is slated to link to similar markets in several Canadian provinces …”

* Chromium-six polluting L.A. County’s wells in addition to local cities. No cause for panic, but one for focused alarm.

- From the L.A. Daily News:

“The tap water in at least four Los Angeles County facilities, including two in Lancaster, has levels of contaminants such as arsenic and lead that exceed federal and state recommendations, according to a new county report released Thursday. The study by the county Department of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures looked at the drinking water in 765 county facilities, including county jails, fire stations and wells. While it found that several hundred facilities had detectable levels of contaminants such as chromium 6, arsenic and lead, four of them were above the “maximum contaminant level” set by state and federal agencies. Those sites included Challenger Memorial Youth Center and a county-owned well at a trailer park, both in Lancaster. The report was the first time in 10 years that such an evaluation of water quality at county facilities was undertaken. County officials said that while they take the findings seriously, they urged the public not to panic … Of the 765 county facilities that were tested, about 43 percent exceeded the state’s “public health goal” for hexavalent chromium, 84 percent exceeded the PHG for arsenic, while 31 percent exceeded the PHG for lead. But officials said that public health goal is a very conservative target and failing to meet it does not necessarily mean the water is dangerous. Of greater concern are the facilities that exceeded the “maximum contaminant level” for certain pollutants. The study detected concentrations of arsenic at 70.4 parts per billion – seven times the federal and state maximum contaminant level – in samples from a restroom faucet at Challenger. It also found that Challenger, and several other facilities, had high levels of hexavalent chromium — aka chromium 6 — a heavy metal that gained notoriety in the film “Erin Brockovich.” The juvenile facility was found to have 12.2 ppb of hexavalent chromium. State officials have yet to set a maximum contaminant level for that particular chemical, but they said the “public health goal” is 0.2 ppb … ”

* Speaking of pollution victims, few place can lay claim like Kettleman, California. Looks like the natives are taking matters into their own hands now, and there’s real parallels to anguished mother in the early days of L.A.’s smog fight.

- From the L.A. Times story:

“Central and Southern California community groups filed a complaint about toxic waste dumps with the Environmental Protection Agency 17 years ago and never received a response. Tired of waiting, they have filed a federal lawsuit … Kettleman City, Buttonwillow and rural areas of Imperial County are home to the only toxic waste dumps in the state. Grassroots community groups say that locating the dumps only in low-income and predominantly Latino areas violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits any recipient of federal money from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin …”

MISC.

* Don’t even get us going on how disingenuous until now the state’s efforts at popularizing solar power has been with homeowners. Progress now, or perhaps the truth bubble emerging of people’s hunger to do more than themselves? You decide.

- From the L.A. Daily News:

“Due to public demand, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power canceled a single public meeting about its solar energy programs and replaced it with four workshops, the utility announced today …”

- The big boys are already reaping the savings, though. Thank God for Google. It just created a $280 pocket change fund. Link

* Some things never change: a conservative group trying to undercut hard-won environmental rules, state by state. They have fans, too. Link

Sierra Club wants big changes in Schwarzenegger-originated West Coast cap and trade … and other green shoots

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

* From the L.A. Times:

“The Sierra Club of California, the state’s oldest and largest environmental group, called on Gov. Jerry Brown this week to substantially rewrite the cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger considered to be his greatest legacy.

…  Among the club’s complaints: industrial plants would be allowed to avoid curbing their own pollution by purchasing offsets from out of state, and possibly foreign-nation projects that reduce carbon dioxide emissions in other ways. “Excessive reliance on offsets could open up loopholes that undermine the very purposes of California’s AB 32 cap on emissions,” the letter said. “Curbing global warming will require a fundamental transformation of our energy economy, a task that cannot be outsourced to other countries.

“Requiring California’s largest polluters to reduce their own emissions will spur technological advances that can be exported to the rest of the world, bringing green jobs to the Golden State. If polluters are allowed to outsource their emissions reductions to other sectors and jurisdictions, the clean-energy revolution will be delayed,” the club declared … ”

We agree!

* Also from the Times:

Two of Southern California’s busiest general aviation airports were thumped as major lead polluters in a finger pointing exercise that wends all the way to the beginnings of L.A. smog in the 1940s.

“The Center for Environmental Health on Tuesday announced impending legal action against more than 40 suppliers of aviation fuel containing lead, often used in piston-powered aircraft engines, at California airports.

The Oakland-based group blames ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, AvFuel Corp. and 38 other suppliers for water and air pollution around 25 airports in California, including Van Nuys Airport, Long Beach/Daugherty Field and LAX.

“The oil and aviation industries need to know Californians will not tolerate lead pollution that threatens our health and healthy environments,” Michael Green, executive director of CEH, said in a statement. “We expect the industries to take immediate action to eliminate pollution that endangers children and families who live, work and play near airports across the state.”

Van Nuys, which handles a lot of civil aviation using piston-engine aircraft, had the highest levels of lead emissions among 3,413 airports nationwide, according to EPA …”

* We recently wrote about how a Washington was shocked and alarmed during a recent visit to still air-polluted Los Angeles. Well, the good old Northwest has a toxic problem of their own, and their getting out the sealants and protective boots and taking it to the asphalt produced with disease-causing industrial waste in it.  As MSNBC reported:

“Washington state has become the first in the nation to ban toxic asphalt sealants made from cancer-causing industrial waste that have been spread over vast swaths of the nation’s cities and suburbs.

The toxic ingredients in coal tar-based sealants are turning up in ordinary house dust as well as in streams, lakes and other waterways at levels that concern government researchers. The chemicals have been found in driveways at concentrations that could require treatment by moon-suited environmental technicians if detected at similar levels at a toxic-waste cleanup site. The sealants are also applied on playgrounds and parking lots …”

One way or another, either directly or tangentially, all these issues are explosed in our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.

May greenery … get it while it’s brown

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

* England, afflicted with air pollution problems since Shakespeare’s time and the country that suffered the deadliest “killer smog” in world history, has made great strides towards blue sky. But the problem is hardly licked there or other highly industrialized cities across Europe. The pictures don’t die and coughing lungs don’t act. Check out this photo spread from the Daily Mail of icky haze in different British cities intermixed with portraits of chyrsallis blue sky when the smog chemicals had taken the day off.

* Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court kepts its provincial, law-book mitts out of environmental regulation, turning back Republican efforts to strip the Obama Administration’s EPA from policing greenhouse gases. What part about global warming and carbon chemicals, we’re eager to know, are unrelated to the EPA’s fundamental charge to protect U.S. citizens and its air, land and sea from ecological damage? Oh, yeah. The political component. Silly us. Here’s how the old, gray lady, the New York Times, viewed the failed wing-clipping effort in a table-setter.

“The case about global warming scheduled to be argued on Tuesday before the Supreme Court is a blockbuster. Eight states — from California to New York, plus New York City — sued six corporations responsible for one-fourth of the American electric power industry’s emissions of carbon dioxide. Rather than seeking money or punishment for the defendants, they seek what everyone should agree is the polluters’ responsibility: abatement of their huge, harmful part in causing climate change. The purpose is not to solve global warming or usurp the government’s role in doing so. It is, rightly, to get major utilities to curb their greenhouse-gas emissions before the government acts. Because there is no federal regulation of this problem in force, it is fortunate that there is a line of Supreme Court precedents back to 1901 on which the plaintiffs can build their challenge. When this lawsuit began seven years ago, one of the defendants’ main defenses was that, because the Clean Air Act and other laws “address” carbon dioxide emissions, Congress has “legislated on the subject” and pre-empted the suit. The pre-emption claim was spurious when they made it and remains spurious now …”

* The L.A. Times reviews the book “Here on Earth,” a narrative that isn’t the gloomy, let’s-just-get-drunk-while-the-climate-does-us-in eulogy one might have suspected for the global warming age.  

“Earth could use a biograghy. Tim Flannery has delivered a provocative one in time for Earth Day. Despite the rising level of greenhouse gases warming the Blue Planet and the failure to unite governments behind efforts to arrest the trend, Flannery is optimistic for Earth’s future and that of its most destructive inhabitants: you and me. That’s not to say there aren’t reasons to fall into a funk while reading “Here on Earth,” the latest work from one of the planet’s great field zoologists and thinkers. Flannery doesn’t bury the hard facts of climate change. But unlike those who believe the human race has evolved into a species incapable of the long-term thought and unity that can save it from overconsumption, Flannery falls in with those who still believe we can save ourselves, in part by retooling our thinking of evolution itself. ‘We have trod the face of the Moon, touched the nethermost pit of the sea, and can link minds instantaneously across vast distances. But for all that, it’s not so much our technology, but what we believe that will determine our fate,’ Flannery proclaims in his ‘dual biography’ of the planet and mankind. ‘Today, many think that our civilization is doomed to collapse,’ he writes. ‘Such fatalism is misplaced. It derives in large part from a misreading of Darwin, and a misunderstanding of our evolved selves. Either such ideas will survive or we will.’

Talking about the survival, what about endurance of famously smogged out respiratory tracts? To learn more, read our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.

From lungs to the head: the inexorable path of smog through the body

Monday, April 11th, 2011

* Researchers at USC made news recently with their announcement that they discovered a correlation between microscopic air pollution particles and neurological conditions including Alzheimers. From the L.A. Times (and I encourage you to read the comments, too) blog:

“It is well known that air pollution from cars and trucks on Southern California freeways — a combination of soot, pavement dust and other toxic substances — can cause respiratory disease, heart attacks, cancer and premature death. Now, exposure to pollution particles roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair has been linked to brain damage in mice, including signs associated with memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a USC study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. In a statement, senior author Caleb Finch, an expert on the effects of inflammation and holder of USC’s ARCO/William F. Kieschnick Chair in the Neurobiology of Aging, said “You can’t see them, but they are inhaled and have an effect on brain neurons that raises the possibility of long-term brain health consequences of freeway air.”

Of course, us Angelenos have been on the front lines of the smog-public health trenches since the mid-1940s. We detail the entire progression in our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.

The first evidence that smog was unhealthy and not just a temporary misery came from mothers who noticed their children were afflicted with headaches, hacking coughs, distracted minds and a sort of spiritual torpor after exposure to the brown murk. Those doctors, though lacking today’s sophisticated equipment, soon developed a consensus that L.A. air pollution was a real threat to people’s pulmonary systems, especially among the aged and infirmed. Many doctors urged ill patients to flee the area.

One USC researcher said the region was “living in a giant cancer experiment.” Besides fears of massive cases of lung cancer (some believed it’d trigger more of it than cigarette smoking), physicians also noticed the hazy, ozone-laden air did a number of people’s tickers, causing tissue damage or igniting an irregular or elevated heart rates. Slowly, as the science improved in the 1950s and 1960s, researchers began noticing that smog was messing with people’s heads. Some Angelenos grew agitated and belligerent in smog, others became surly and even suicidal. Decades back, a top California medical official said Southern California’s noxious atmosphere was driving up admission into state mental hospitals. In a freakish aside, a small number of people suffered a smog-ignited syndrome called “globus hyperius,” an imaginary lump in the throat that can induce spasmadoic swallowing. 

It wasn’t until the 1990s that researchers drew connections between today’s mutated smog — one heavy on ultra-fine particulate pollution, much of it from diesel engines and proximity to freeways – neurological conditions like dementia and even autoimmune diseases like diabetes. Today’s mice are just confirming the episodic understanding that air pollution is far more harmful to certain people at more nuanced levels than we ever imagined.

This is a terribly important find for a tenacious urban condition of our own making.

An expert (and smog sufferer) vents at Republicans efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act that helped our mountains reappear and our lungs to recover

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

This foreful and provocative blog post comes from Char Miller, Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published “Cities and Nature in the American West.” He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

“The postcard on my desk is almost 40 years old. Angelenos of a certain age will recognize it–a wide-angled, aerial shot of the downtown core of Los Angeles and its then, much-more modest skyline. Framed by the intersection of the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways, the whole scene is muffled in a brown smear of smog. Barely visible in the deep background, just poking above the thick toxic stew, is a snow-capped Mt. Baldy, the tallest of the San Gabriels. Reads the arch caption: “Greetings from Los Angeles.”

I first spotted the card in the fall of 1972 when I came to Southern California to attend Pitzer College, and immediately sent a steady stream of them to family and friends back east. They got its black humor, which I reinforced when I confessed (and perhaps bragged) that my dorm room was within five miles of Mt. Baldy, yet I almost never saw its bold face.

Now I see it every day, often with stunning clarity, as if the entire range was etched out of a blue true dream of sky. How strange, then, that Republicans in Congress are maneuvering to gut the Clean Air Act, stop the EPA from regulating Greenhouse gases, and, in a special affront to Los Angeles, roll back the federal agency’s ability to monitor tailpipe emissions. It’s enough to make you gasp for air.

Their regressive political agenda, designed to savage public health, ought to infuriate any who lived–and suffered–through the dark-sky years that hung over SoCal like a pall. It took decades of fierce struggle on the local, state, and national levels to build the political capital and legislative clout needed to write the binding regulations, a battle that began in the late 1940s and which is richly chronicled in Chip Jacobs’ and William J. Kelly’s Smogtown (2008).

It took just as long to create and fund the federal Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the local South Coast Air Quality Management District (1976). Neither organization had an easy birth: President Nixon created the EPA with reluctance and under considerable pressure; and Governor Ronald Reagan twice vetoed the creation of SCAQMD, which only came into being with a stroke of Governor Jerry Brown’s pen. We have blue skies–when we have them–only because of the robust regulatory regime that emerged out of this fraught politics of smog.

We need to remember this history as well because nothing else accounts for the steady uptick in Southern California’s air quality. After all, what my vintage postcard, in its didactic back text, asserts were the central contributing factors to the region’s then-poisonous air, remains true: “Millions of people driving millions of cars plus temperature inversion provide Los Angeles with a near perfect environment for the production and containment of photochemical smog.” One result of this disturbing mix of technology and meteorology, it warns, is that the “LA Basin inversion acts as a giant lid over the smog, inhabitants and visitors.”

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