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James Pitts dies at 93; his research led to cleaner air in California

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Chemist James Pitts, whose smog research was used to craft California's air quality standards, dies at 93
James Pitts dies at 93; UC chemist's smog research led to cleaner air in California
James Pitts, whose smog research was the basis for California's pioneering air-quality standards, dies at 93

James Pitts, an influential smog researcher whose work was used to craft California's pioneering air quality regulations, has died. He was 93.

Pitts died in his sleep of natural causes at his Irvine home on June 19, according to his wife, Barbara Finlayson-Pitts, a fellow chemist at UC Irvine.

In a career that spanned more than 60 years, Pitts, a chemist at UC Riverside and UC Irvine, provided scientific data that formed a basis for emissions-cutting policies that were adopted nationwide and have resulted in dramatically cleaner air.

As director of the Statewide Air Pollution Research Center at UC Riverside for 18 years, Pitts assembled and led a team of researchers that built a state-of-the-art smog chamber and conducted landmark studies of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants from vehicle exhaust that react in sunlight to form ozone, the lung-searing gas that is the main ingredient of smog.

"He was steadfast in his opinions, backed up by scientific research, that you need to control these pollutants in the atmosphere; that you would not improve things without taking pollutants out of the air," said former state Air Resources Board Chairman and California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Alan C. Lloyd, a friend and colleague for over 40 years.

During Pitts' tenure in the 1970s and '80s, the center at UC Riverside became internationally renowned and sought out for advice by environmental regulators and elected officials. Pitts was regarded as a dynamic speaker with a talent for translating science for laypeople. His smog chamber became a frequent stop for briefings for visiting politicians, including Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown.

"Jim took the best research and demonstrated the causes of air pollution, which was at that time grotesque," said Ron Loveridge, former mayor of Riverside who directs UC Riverside's Center for Sustainable Suburban Development. "He put together policy and politics and made air pollution a center ring issue for Southern California, for California and for the country," he said.

In one demonstration he often gave to politicians, Pitts filled an Erlenmeyer flask with ozone — a colorless gas — then twisted a lemon slice into the glass container. The mixture reacted instantly, producing a light-obscuring fog.

"The smoke or particles would form right in front of your eyes," recalled Arthur Winer, a professor emeritus in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA who worked with Pitts at UC Riverside. "It was a very visual way of showing how in the polluted atmosphere you have gases that react to become particles, which then cause visibility degradation and important health impacts."

Prizing his academic integrity, Pitts refused to accept research funds from industry groups, and that policy gave the research center credibility as an unbiased source of expertise.

Pitts co-authored nearly 400 scientific publications and four books. His studies were heavily cited and used by state and federal environmental agencies to issue smog alerts, craft health-based air quality standards and to counter claims by the auto industry that exhaust gases were harmless and would dissipate in the atmosphere.

"Jim Pitts was probably the single person most responsible for the understanding of what strategies we need to clean up Southern California's air," said Mary Nichols, chair of the state Air Resources Board. "He was able to explain all of this in English to policymakers so that they would be able to accept that it was going to take extensive and difficult actions to control emissions."

James N. Pitts Jr. was born in Salt Lake City on Jan. 10, 1921. When he was 6 months old his family moved to West Los Angeles. He credited his 11th-grade science teacher with stoking his interest in chemistry, and he began studying the subject as a UCLA undergraduate in 1939.

For several years during World War II, Pitts joined other young scientists who were enlisted to conduct classified government field studies in chemical warfare, including one project that developed a more effective gas mask for Allied troops.

He returned to UCLA to complete his bachelor's degree in 1945. In 1949 Pitts earned his doctorate from the university and joined the faculty at Northwestern University outside Chicago.

In 1954 Pitts was hired as a founding professor at UC Riverside, where he co-founded the Statewide Air Pollution Research Center in 1961. He served as director from 1970 to 1988.

Pitts entered the field in the 1950s when thick smog often blanketed the Los Angeles Basin and other metropolitan areas. Scientists were just beginning to unravel the chemistry of the photochemical reactions that generate smog, and the health risks of air pollution were not well understood.

One of Pitts' biggest influences was Francis E. Blacet, a trailblazer in the field of air pollution chemistry who was one of Pitts' teachers at UCLA.

In a 2007 interview in the Spectrum, a scientific journal published by Bowling Green State University, Pitts recalled a piece of advice Blacet gave him that would guide his work for decades: "Theories come and theories go, but good data stand forever."

In that spirit, Pitts and his team focused their research on the fundamentals of smog formation. They tracked concentrations of harmful pollutants, studied how they reacted and lingered in the air and pinpointed the emissions that had to be reduced to protect public health.

He met his second wife, Barbara Finlayson-Pitts, in 1970 at UC Riverside. In 1994 he joined her as research scientist at UC Irvine. The two often collaborated on books and research papers.

Besides his wife, Pitts is survived by daughters Linda Lee, Christie Hoffman and Beckie St. George and six grandchildren.

Twitter: @tonybarboza

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