Air Pollution In Southern California Remains Serious Issue Despite Decades of Progress Made – Part 2


Posted on 28 February 2012

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By Alan Kandel

In Southern California over the past two decades much in the way of air quality improvement has been achieved. There has been a marked reduction in both fine particle pollution generated at area ports (as we’ve learned from Part 1) and motor vehicle-produced smog (ground-level ozone).

Fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) is emitted from motor vehicles and other mobile sources (both on and off-road) in addition to industrial and power plant (stationary) sources as well as from forest fires, according to information provided by California Watch Health and Welfare reporter Bernice Yeung in the article: “Southern Californians at risk of death from air pollution, EPA says.”

Ground-level ozone, the harmful ozone type, forms when volatile organic compounds (VOC) coupled with oxides of nitrogen (NOx) “react in the presence of sunlight,” Yeung noted. This type of ozone is a corrosive gas that can damage lungs and can trigger asthma attacks. The California Watch Health and Welfare reporter also pointed out, “[O]zone is typically linked to byproducts from industrial facilities and electric utilities, car exhaust, gas vapors and chemical solvents.”

To reduce such pollution’s negative impact in the South Coast Air Basin (and elsewhere in California) even further, there appears to be agreement that more could and should be done.

In this, the second and last part of this two-part series, highlighted is recent research suggesting there exists a premature death risk to Southern Californians exposed to both fine particle and ozone (smog) pollution over long periods of time. One or more of the findings of the study in question has fueled debate and discussion on this is included.

Pollution’s impact felt

According to Yeung, “Southern Californians are among those at highest risk of death due to air pollution, according to recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency research published in the journal Risk Analysis.

“The study, published last month, was conducted to ‘provide insight to the size and location of public health risks associated with recent levels of fine particles and ozone, allowing decision-makers to better target air quality policies,’ the federal agency said in a statement responding to California Watch inquiries.”

But perhaps the most eye-popping information to come out of the California Watch article was:

“The study examined air pollution exposure based on 2005 air quality levels and projected there could be between 130,000 and 360,000 premature deaths among adults in coming years. The 2005 data was the best available for analyzing fine particulates and ozone, the EPA said. Among vulnerable populations like children, the EPA also estimates that fine particulate matter and ozone results in millions of cases of respiratory symptoms, asthma and school absences, as well as hundreds of thousands of cases of acute bronchitis and emergency room visits.

Through the EPA research, it was discovered that those living in California’s Southland communities as well as in the Midwest industrial belt are exposed to the highest levels of fine particle pollution in the nation. And, fine particulate matter pollution “has been found to exacerbate respiratory illnesses and increase heart attacks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Yeung acknowledged.

Not only this, but, “Among the most populated areas of the country, Los Angeles had the highest estimated rate of deaths attributable to air pollution, at nearly 10 percent; San Jose had the lowest at 3.5 percent.”

Disagreement?

Although there is no disputing the existence of air pollution, some, however, challenge the notion this pollution leads to premature death. Either it does or it does not.

Debate here centers on whether there is as James Enstrom, a UCLA School of Public Health researcher puts it, “‘enough epidemiological evidence to conclude that air pollution kills people,’” as Yeung revealed in the California Watch article. Enstrom did, however, acknowledge that although there is a link “between air quality and health effects,” he also felt that “the EPA study fails to acknowledge regional nuances when it comes to the real risks of premature deaths,” according to Yeung, Enstrom adding that, “‘Every piece of evidence for the state of California as a whole shows that there’s no effect (on mortality). There’s some effect in the Los Angeles basin, but that’s not a fair representation of absolute risk.’”

Meanwhile, U.C. Berkeley law professor and “co-director of the university’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment” Dan Farber, pulled no punches, insisting, “the debates over the EPA's air quality findings are ultimately political,” according to Yeung.

For the record

Debate – be it scientific, political or what-have-you – the bottom line is that air pollution in Southern California is real. It’s probably even debatable if the ongoing debate is helping or hurting matters. It no doubt can’t hurt to try to clean up the pollution that’s already here and not add to or exacerbate the existing poor air quality condition.

Besides that which was presented in Part 1, it is important to note here that, “Estimating the National Public Health Burden Associated with Exposure to Ambient PM2.5 and Ozone,” the EPA study referenced here and first published online on May 31, 2011 in the journal Risk Analysis, in the study’s Methods (section 2) under “Overview of the HIA [Health Impact Assessment]” (subsection 2.1), it should be made clear and in no uncertain terms and as stated by the study’s authors Neal Fann et al:

“We estimate the number of adverse health outcomes associated with population exposure to air pollution using a health impact function. The health impact function used in this analysis has four components: the change in air quality, the affected population, the baseline incidence rate, and the effect estimate drawn from the epidemiological studies,” or “key data inputs.”

Furthermore, from (subsection 2.5) “Calculating Health Impacts,” the authors state: “Quantifying the number of PM2.5 and ozone-related excess mortalities and morbidities involved specifying the health impact function with each of the key data inputs described above. It was additionally stated in “Selection of Concentration-Response Relationships and Baseline Incidence Rates” (subsection 2.4): “We estimate impacts to several PM2.5-related human health endpoints, including premature deaths from long-term exposure, respiratory and cardiovascular-related hospital visits, asthma-related emergency department visits, chronic bronchitis, and nonfatal heart attacks among others.”

Finally, and for the record, there is no denying that exhaustive quantitative analytical research has been done in this and similar areas. That research will, in all likelihood, continue. It should be so noted that in much of my writing I’ve made mention of several documented studies. It is evident that practice continues here.

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Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.