Hot Weather Means Unhealthy Air, Even With Shutdown

Earlier this month we celebrated Southern California’s great air quality — with many caveats — but now, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, it’s “Very Unhealthy” in some spots, even though we still have widespread shutdowns.

As you can see, as of midafternoon on April 29, people living in Rancho Cucamonga experienced “Very Unhealthy” (purple) air, whereas people in Santa Clarita and Corona had “Unhealthy” (red) air, followed by air that was “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” (orange) in San Bernardino and Ontario.

Much of Los Angeles and Santa Monica was “Moderate” (yellow), while those in Long Beach seem blessed with the best air, at the moment.

Screenshot of the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s hourly Air Quality Index, taken at 3:30 p.m. on April 29, 2020. (South Coast Air Quality Management District)

One of the biggest factors that’s changed between last month and now is the weather, a reliable determiner of bad air in L.A.

“When we have these warm heat spells in April or May, it’s not unusual to see some higher ozone levels,” said Philip Fine, deputy executive officer at South Coast AQMD for the Planning and Rules Division.

As it heats up we’re starting to get a clearer picture of our pollution problem.

That’s because the heat bakes emissions from planes, ships, construction sites, and cars that are all still operating, and turns them into smog. That’s why air quality tends to be worse during the hottest parts of the day.

It’s too early to tell exactly how widespread of an impact the shutdown is having on all sources of emissions (there are many). Fine estimates that there’s been a downtick of roughly 20% to 30% of traffic across the region.

It’s an interesting real-life emissions experiment that seems to make clear, if we want consistently clean air, that we’re going to need to go much further than a few electric cars and trucks on the road.

“We’ll be studying this probably for years to come,” said Fine.

Air quality should improve if emissions fall or we have a windy day that clears everything out.

Worse Air Quality In Phoenix Communities Of Color Could Mean Higher COVID-19 Risk

As coronavirus spreads across the country, it’s hitting certain demographic groups disproportionately hard, and air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest.

COVID-19 is riskiest for people who have underlying health conditions such as asthma. And the list of conditions that can make the respiratory virus more deadly closely overlaps with the kinds of conditions made worse by exposure to air pollution.

And in the Phoenix area, air quality is very poor.

“Maricopa County is actually one of the most contaminated counties in the country,” said Laura Dent, executive director of Chispa, a Latino-focused environmental organization.

Chispa has focused efforts on air pollution in the Valley for years, but Dent is especially concerned right now.

“In some of these harder-hit areas, the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis will be even more exacerbated,” Dent said.

A new study from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows exposure to air pollution worsens outcomes for COVID-19. An increase of just one-millionth of a gram of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air increases the chance of death from the virus by 15%.

All of Maricopa County experiences air pollution. But busier streets and topography that causes pollution to settle contribute to even dirtier air in south and west Phoenix. And residents of those heavily polluted neighborhoods are primarily Latino or African American.

Air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Paul Atkinson/KJZZ)

“Latinos and communities of color, in Arizona, but across the country are disproportionately impacted by respiratory issues related to contamination and pollution and there’s so much history that leads to that,” Dent said.

Decades of discriminatory housing practices, for example, meant people of color in Phoenix were very limited in which parts of the city they could live.

Darshan Karwat is an aerospace engineer at ASU. His research gives a score to Phoenix neighborhoods based on access to services and environmental factors.

“Research has shown over decades that when communities are burdened with one thing, they’re probably burdened with a lot of different things,” Karwat said.

Karwat’s research shows correlations between neighborhoods’ poverty levels, percentage of minority residents, and pollution levels. And those correlations appear to have health implications. High-poverty Phoenix neighborhoods see more asthma hospitalizations.

Dr. Joanna Andujar is a pediatrician with Mountain Park Health’s clinic in West Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood. She sees those effects firsthand.

“When the air quality gets worse we do see more kids coming in with an exacerbation of asthma,” Andujar said.

As coronavirus spreads, its impact on different communities has been similarly uneven. Across the country, African Americans are dying of COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. In Arizona, some Native American reservations have been especially hard-hit.

“COVID-19 is a lens through which we see even better what has happened as a result of the lack of being concerned about health disparities,” said Olga Davis, a professor at ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communications. Davis has researched public health issues among Phoenix African Americans.

Race and location data on Arizona coronavirus cases is still incomplete. But Davis fears lower income communities of color may eventually prove to be disproportionately affected in the Phoenix area too. She said, unfortunately, these outcomes are predictable.

“I’m very sad that it is still a reality after so much has been done so much has been written,” Davis said.

Dozens of factors, from educational opportunities to access to healthy food, create public health disparities across demographic groups. Air pollution is only one component, but it’s something Karwat said has the potential to improve.

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. (Photo courtesy of Storyblocks)

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. Karwat sees that as a rare opportunity for air quality research along with ASU colleague Jennifer Vanos.

“If we can measure it, then we can manage it better, then we can potentially fix it and see, could we get back to cleaner air? What policies made the biggest changes?” Vanos said.

Vanos and Karwat are applying for grant funding, hoping to be able to place dozens of air quality monitors around the city while air is cleaner than usual. Then, as social-distancing orders are gradually lifted, they’d be able to track which policy changes make the biggest impact on which neighborhoods—information that could be helpful for addressing disparities in Phoenix pollution levels in the future.

For now, those economic and environmental inequalities remain Dent said coronavirus is making them alarmingly clear.

“All of these challenges come together to hurt and impact populations in a really different way,” Dent said.

She hopes that frame is part of the way we seek policy solutions, when coronavirus is behind us.

‘Asthma Alley’: Long Beach Ranks Worst in U.S. for Air Quality

LONG BEACH, Calif. – At least every other day, Selene Zazueta has to tell her 8-year-old daughter that she can’t play outside with her friends. As upsetting as that is, the girl has asthma, and the family lives just off Interstate 710 in Long Beach, in an area known as “Asthma Alley.”

“It’s a nightmare,” Zazueta said.

The story of Zazueta, 38, and her daughters, Emma Mijares and Isabella Ramirez, 9, is just one such story of life in a city with the dirtiest air in the country.

Of the 100 largest cities in the country, Long Beach comes in dead last in terms of air quality, according to the 2019 American Fitness Index rankings, published by the American College of Sports Medicine and the Anthem Foundation, a nonprofit of the health insurance provider Anthem, Inc.

The city sits between the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest ports in North America, according to the Journal of Commerce. Combined, the ports account for nearly 30% of the continent’s market share; in addition, most imports from Asia enter the country here, are loaded onto trains and tractor-trailer rigs and shipped to warehouses and factories all over the country.

Of the 100 largest cities in the country, the top 10 with the worst air quality are in Arizona and California.

Zazueta’s story is a familiar one to Sylvia Betancourt, a project manager for the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma. Families of children with severe asthma tell her they feel helpless against the effects of Long Beach’s poor air quality on a daily basis, she said.

“There’s nothing like describing that lived experience, in particular, with seeing your child not not be able to breathe,” Betancourt said.

Zazueta said she has seasonal allergies – as does her older daughter, Isabella – something she never experienced until moving to Long Beach 12 years ago. Shortly after Emma was born, Zazueta said, the family made frequent trips to the hospital, as night after night Emma would wake up gasping for air.

“At first I just thought it was a cold; I had never really heard of asthma,” Zazueta recalled. “It was not until I found (the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma) that I fully realized what it was.”

Since 1999, the alliance has worked in outreach and medical training to reduce the number of hospitalizations and school absences as a result of asthma. More than 25 million Americans have asthma, a long-term condition that intermittently inflames and narrows the airways of the lungs, causing shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. Severe asthma attacks can lead to death.

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“(They) all knew that asthma is a chronic illness,” Betancourt said, “and there are high risks involved, risk of even death, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

To put the numbers into perspective, Norfolk, Virginia, residents enjoy good air quality 98% of the year, while Long Beach residents enjoy good air quality only 10% of the year. The average amount of good air quality for the 100 cities is 62% of the year. The American Fitness Index study also said that geography, weather, automobile use and industrial emissions all play a role in a city’s air quality.

None of this surprises K. Benjamin Hagedorn, an associate professor and geochemist at California State University, Long Beach. As someone who teaches a class on air pollution, Hagedorn said Long Beach and Southern California in general rank pretty low in terms of air quality because of emissions and low rainfall.

“From about March through October, there is just no process that kind of flushes or purges the atmosphere, so we have this trend where those emissions just accumulate and are baked by the sunlight to form pollutants,” Hagedorn said.

The study advises that people who live in areas of poor air quality should avoid outdoor activities during rush hours and exercise away from heavily trafficked roads, but for many children in and around “Asthma Alley,” Betancourt said those may not be viable options.

“Sometimes you really don’t have any choice when it’s too hot so you have to open your windows,” Betancourt said. “When you do that, well, you’re exposing your child and your family to dirty air that literally you can you can smell it. You’re breathing that in.”

But for the Zazuetas and similar families, that might be the only option for now. Zazueta said she hopes she can use her own experiences to continue to educate families, as she now volunteers for the same organization she turned to in her time of need.

“It’s truly been a lifesaver,” Zazueta said.

‘Many Lives at Risk’: What Pollution Rollbacks Could Mean for California and Arizona

LOS ANGELES – At the turn of the 20th century, Southern California’s oil industry was booming, with refineries belching black smoke. It got so bad that one day in 1903, Los Angeles residents woke up to skies so dark they thought was a solar eclipse.

It wasn’t an out-of-this-world event. It was smog.

And Southern California’s air quality has been the subject of headlines ever since.

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Today, the right to regulate air pollution has become the subject of another political fight between California officials and federal regulators in Washington. In late September, President Donald Trump announced that his administration will revoke California’s nearly 50-year authority to set its own vehicle standards for tailpipe emissions. California and 22 other states have filed suit. Arizona implemented California’s emission standards in 2008 but revoked them in 2012, and did not join in the lawsuit.

The recent conflict comes after Volkswagen, Ford, BMW and Honda struck a deal with California to reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency.

Clean air advocates say air quality will be severely harmed if the White House succeeds in ending the waiver California was granted by the newly minted Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

“Many people’s lives, many people’s health is going to be at risk because of the freezing of the emissions waiver, which is a direct attack on California’s authority,” said Chris Chavez, the deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, a California-based environmentalist nonprofit group. “California has committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by certain dates and certain benchmark levels, and that is going to be far more difficult without those clean car standards.”

-Video by Kyla Wilcher/Cronkite News

Experts say there are simpler ways to help fix climate change, particularly using less energy from fossil fuels. Suzanne Paulson, director at UCLA’s Center for Clean Air, said although much has been done, the waiver was a safety net for California skies.

“There are always further steps that can be taken to clean up the air more. Historically, one of the dominant sources was cars and trucks on the roadways,” Paulson said. “Partly through the waiver, we have set California-specific emissions controls that have served to clean up the air tremendously.”

Arizona struggles with poor air quality, too, according to a recent ranking from the American Fitness Index. All 10 of the worst cities for air quality in America are either in Southern California or the Phoenix area.

Chavez said he thinks many other states “are watching with concern because ultimately this will become a major legal test of states being able to act independently of the federal government to respond to local needs.”

California’s independent streak on regulation began in 1947, when Los Angeles became the first city in the country to implement local air pollution regulators. They were deemed necessary because After World War II ended, the West Coast’s aerospace industryand other manufacturing plants boomed, which resulted in much more air pollution.

Congress passed the federal Clean Air Act in 1970 to protect public health and public welfare and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants for all 50 states. That same year, California was granted a waiver by the EPA, allowing it to set emissions standards more stringent than federal standards.

By 1984, the state began requiring every vehicle on the road to pass what became known as a smog check, to keep high-polluting cars off the road. Automakers responded by building vehicles specifically for California buyers, and over the years, 13 states adopted the higher standards. They will be affected by the waiver’s revocation, too.

But those standards were under attack again this week, when the Sacramento Bee reported a letter sent from the EPA to California’s chief air quality regulator threatened “to cut federal transportation funding from the state as punishment for not submitting timely pollution-control plans.”

The letter – which also said California has “the worst air quality” in the country – came in response to California having “backlogged and unapprovable” reports that did not meet the EPA’s demands for proof of compliance with the Clean Air Act.

“We’ve done all of the stuff that’s easy many years ago, we’ve done lots of stuff that’s hard as well,” said Paulson of UCLA. “Finding additional controls that will bring us to meet air quality standards is a huge challenge even without this additional tool taken away from our tool kit.”

In a press conference last week, Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, spoke about why the rollbacks pose threats for the state and the West Coast.

“Standards are necessary to protect the public health and welfare,” Nichols said. “We actually need these extra-clean cars in order to meet the health standards that are set by the federal government.”

What isn’t clear is whether the lawsuit – which also was joined by Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C. – will outlast the administration it targets.

“We are still looking at a few years down the line for everything to be settled, in the best-case scenario,” Chavez said, referring to the 2020 election. “If President Trump gets re-elected, that will be a tougher issue. It could get (dragged) out well into his second term.”

Ozone pollution bad in cities all over West

PHOENIX – The nearly 250 employees who work at Coreslab Structures could have looked up one June morning to see a yellow flag flying on top of their building. It was a signal to the employees, who often work outside, that the air quality that day was acceptable but possibly concerning to those with chronic health problems.

Coreslab, which produces precast-concrete construction materials in southwest Phoenix and 17 other sites in North America, became the first business in Arizona to join the state’s Air Quality Flag Program. More than 200 schools are part of the program, which is open to everyone.

“To me, it kind of seemed like a no brainer,” said Brandon Dickerson, plant safety coordinator at Coreslab. “Everything we do here in the production yard is completely outside.”

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality established the Air Quality Flag Program in 2007 to alert the public to high-pollution advisories. Based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, there are four colors: red, orange, yellow and green.

“Red, for instance, means we are over a federal health-based standard,” said Timothy Franquist, air-quality director at ADEQ. “Green means that we are in good for the air quality for the day.”

In 2017, Phoenix had 42 days in which ozone levels exceeded the EPA’s recommended limit, which would signal a red or orange flag, according to the ADEQ.

The American Lung Association in April listed the Phoenix area as the eighth most polluted city in the country.

And when it comes to air pollution from ozone, cities in California and Arizona topped the list.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s Timothy Franquist said certain groups – including people with asthma or other respiratory diseases, children and elderly people – are sensitive to higher ozone levels and particulates.

Individuals who enjoy activities outdoors also are susceptible to the risks of poor air quality.

“We just want to let those community members know what the air quality is like that day so they can take the proper precautions to either limit their exposure or maybe go out at different times of the day,” Franquist said.

In Arizona, most participants in the flag program are schools because children tend to be the most sensitive population, Franquist said.

“The real key to this is this is a voluntary program,” Franquist said. “We have over 200 schools, but it’s open to everybody – businesses, government agencies – the more people that participate, the more we can get the message out to the residents of Arizona.”