Smog in Retreat : First-Stage Alerts Hit a 30-Year Low


Lungs burned, heads throbbed, eyes watered.

Longtime Orange County residents have vivid memories of those symptoms of summer in the late 1970s, when smog blanketed the area like a shroud.

In comparison, the summer of ’91 was like a breath of fresh air.

This year’s smog season, which runs from May through October, ends today with just three days of smog alerts in Orange County--the best season in about 30 years of air-quality monitoring.


The entire Los Angeles basin, which includes Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, had a relatively good year with 46 smog alerts, slightly more than its record clean year in 1990.

Much of the credit goes to the overcast conditions and strong marine breezes that dominated the summer, as well as this week’s gusty winds that left sparkling-blue skies. But air-quality officials are encouraged by several consecutive years of mild smog throughout the region, which they say is a clear sign that pollution controls on cars and businesses are working.

“We’ve seen fewer areas having (alerts) for three years in a row,” said Joe Cassmassi, senior meteorologist with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the region’s smog-fighting agency. “That’s significant. It says we’re seeing an improvement.”

Orange County’s air carries less ozone, the main ingredient of smog, than before the population


boom of the 1970s and ‘80s, according to the AQMD. If the trend continues, smog alerts--when air is so dirty that some people are advised to stay indoors--could be a thing of the past here within a few years.

For people with lung disease such as asthma, 1991 brought relief from the ill health that usually accompanies summer.

“It was the best year I’ve seen since I’ve been in practice,” said Dr. Raymond Casciari, a pulmonary specialist in Orange since 1978. "(Patients) did very, very well. They tell me it’s the best summer they’ve had--that they didn’t need to use their medication, that they could go outside and enjoy themselves more.”

The three days of smog alerts this year--one apiece in Anaheim, La Habra and El Toro--compares to four in 1990 and 11 in 1989. In 1978, one of the worst smog years in recent county history, 24 alerts were called in La Habra, 13 in Anaheim, 10 in El Toro and five in Los Alamitos.

For the entire Los Angeles basin, the season was the second best on record, with 46 days of alerts, compared with 41 in 1990 and 54 in 1989.

The region’s smog fighters, however, have a long way to go to achieve healthful air.

“It’s not time to pop the champagne yet,” says Tim Little, executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air, a Santa Monica-based environmental group. “We still breathe far and away the worst air in the country. I can’t at all say we’ve got it licked.”

Southern California’s air pollution remains two to three times worse than anywhere else in the nation, primarily because of ozone.


An invisible, lung-scarring gas, ozone forms when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emitted by cars and industry react with sunlight and are trapped by weather conditions and the mountains. Mixed with carbon soot, sulfates and other dark particles, it forms the infamous haze that envelops the region, usually in summertime.

Even though Orange County has the mildest smog of the four counties in the basin, it still has many days when the air is considered unhealthful but not bad enough to trigger an alert.

The federal health standard is 0.12 parts of ozone per million parts air, an amount that causes discomfort in some people, especially children, the elderly and people with lung disease. A Stage 1 alert is called by the AQMD when ozone reaches 0.20 p.p.m., while a Stage 2 alert--the last one in the basin occurred in 1988--is triggered at 0.35 p.p.m.

Last year, the federal health standard was violated on 35 days in La Habra, 11 days in El Toro and Anaheim, seven days in Los Alamitos and three days in Costa Mesa.

“A smog alert means the air is so toxic that you’re not supposed to go outside and breathe it,” Little said. “So just because the number of those days has decreased isn’t reason to jump up and down because the federal health standard is still violated so frequently.”

Even healthy people suffer symptoms from ozone, including shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, sore throats and watery eyes, especially during outdoors exercise. Medical studies also have confirmed that Southern Californians suffer long-term harm, including premature aging and scarring of their lungs.

Air-quality officials hope that the fewer alerts don’t make Orange County residents complacent about smog, because the fumes from their cars and industry are the main reason for hazardous air in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

On a typical summer morning, ocean breezes push emissions inland, where they react with the sun and form ozone by mid-afternoon. Blocked by the mountains, Orange County’s fumes tend to funnel through Santa Ana Canyon, toward Norco and into the San Bernardino Valley.


The exceptions are when sea breezes are abnormally weak, or when mild Santa Ana winds reverse the normal air flow and push pollutants over the coast, triggering alerts in Orange County.

Throughout Southern California, longtime residents have clear memories of the summer days when Stage 1 and Stage 2 alerts were as predictable as the sunrise.

Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder recalls that when she moved from Los Angeles to Huntington Beach in 1971, the difference was striking. “It was clear air here, and that’s one of the reasons we left Los Angeles,” she said.

But within a few years, the same thick layer of pollution began blanketing Orange County’s inland cities. Flying over the mountains into the area was like diving into a bowl of pea soup, she recalls.

“As Orange County changed, and the population grew, it certainly exacerbated the problem,” said Wieder, who represents Orange County on the AQMD board that sets the region’s clean-air regulations. “I remember flying over Riverside into Orange County and thinking it was kind of scary that we were surviving in that kind of an environment.”

Arthur Davidson, a former top official with the AQMD, recalls climbing two flights of stairs to a Los Angeles roof and sampling the air every summer afternoon in the mid-1960s. He often felt an immediate tightness in his chest, shortness of breath and a drain on his energy.

“Sometimes, when we got up there, with the yellow-brown haze, it looked like the end of the world,” said Davidson, who is now an air-quality consultant in Seattle. “Almost every summer day, there was significant amounts of smog.

“It is very, very different (in Southern California) now,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often any more. You really had to live through it to understand it.”

In the 25 years since then, the peak concentrations of ozone throughout the region have been cut in half despite an influx of people, cars and businesses, Davidson said, noting that visibility has also improved.

Thousands of tons of smog-forming fumes are still released into Southern California’s air every day, but the volume is declining because of anti-smog controls on cars and businesses.

The AQMD estimates that since 1975, emissions of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides have decreased by 38% and 20% respectively throughout the Los Angeles basin, and 30% and 16% in Orange County. The two pollutants, which come mainly from automobiles, combine to form ozone.

Air-quality officials and environmentalists warn that the decades of improvement will be easily outstripped by population growth unless people make changes in their lifestyles.

The main culprits, they say, are not industries, but consumers and commuters.

“All of us have to make clean-air choices, whether you are in Orange County or Los Angeles,” Little said. “If you walk out of your house without even an attempt to car-pool, that is the moral equivalent to watering the sidewalk during the drought. We can solve this problem one puff at a time.”

Under its new 20-year, clean-air plan, the AQMD has vowed to impose regulations designed to cut emissions 75% and achieve health standards by 2010. The main changes will come in vehicles, which are responsible for about 60% of the region’s smog-forming pollution.

Wieder said that she and other members of the AQMD board must be cautious to protect the economy while cleaning the air, but she said state and regional officials have no intention of turning back.

“The train’s already moving,” Wieder said, “and it is going to be electric, not diesel.”

Breathing Easier...

The official smog season ends today with Orange County recording only three smog alerts this year, continuing a decade-long decline in first-stage alerts.

Days when a first-stage smog alert occurred:

1980 1990 Burbank 30 3 Pasadena 56 7 Azusa 74 11 Upland 73 13 Pomona 49 8 Los Angeles 10 0 La Habra 14 1 Norco 32 5 Anaheim 6 1 Los Alamitos 3 0 Costa Mesa 1 0 El Toro 3 1

These cities recorded second-stage smog alerts in 1980: Azusa, 7; Burbank, 1; Pomona, 1; Pasadena, 3; Upland, 4. No cities reported second stage smog alerts in 1991.

Though smog readings reach alert levels less often, unhealthful air still plagues the area. Typically, pollution from Orange County spills into the Inland Empire, triggering alerts there.

(1) Morning emissions from cars and businesses are (2) blown inland by ocean breezes. (3) By midday, they are trapped near the ground by an inversion layer and react with the sun to form ozone. The smog cloud moves through the Santa Ana Canyon (4) and settles into the valleys of Riverside and San Bernardino counties (5).

Making Ozone

POLLUTANTS: Hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide ride into the atmosphere.

SUNLIGHT: Sunlight radiation interacts with emissions to form ozone.

OZONE: Ozone--three bonded oxygen atoms--forms as a colorless component of smog.

Signs Of Improvement: The days in which Orange County’s air violated the federal health standard for ozone have declined. This standard (0.12 parts per million) is lower than a first-stage smog alert (0.20 p.p.m.).

Controlling Smog

The smog problem in the Los Angeles basin is far worse than anywhere else in the country. In a bid to control this pollution, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is implementing hundreds of regulations aimed at meeting federal air pollution standards by the year 2010. State and federal regulations are also being adopted.

Power Plants

AQMD rules that cut the nitrogen oxides released by power plants went into effect in 1990, and the limits will be tightened each year through the year 2000.

Electric Cars

By 1998, 2% of new cars sold in California must be electric, under state Air Resources Board regulations adopted last fall. The percentage rises in subsequent years, to 10% in 2003.


The AQMD may consider requiring in 1994 a phase-in of buses that are powered by clean-burning fuels or electricity.


Beginning Jan. 1, lighter fluids will have to meet pollution standards or not be sold in the Los Angeles Basin. Present fluids release hydrocarbons, a main ingredient of smog.


To cut smog emissions, gasoline-powered leaf-blowers could be eliminated in 1994, under an AQMD proposal. Electric vacuums, rakes or brooms might be promoted instead.

Southern California: Smog Capital

The Los Angeles Basin violates the federal standard for ozone, the main ingredient of smog, on far more days per year than anyplace else in the nation. Averages are based on the 1987-89 reporting period (Average days per year).

Los Angeles Basin: 137.5

Southern California Deserts*: 59.6

Ventura County Area: 38.8

New York Area: 17.4

Chicago Area: 13.0

San Diego Area: 12.3

Houston Area: 12.2

Baltimore Area: 10.7

Milwaukee Area: 9.8

Philadelphia Area: 8.8

* Desert portions of Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties.

NOTE: The Environmental Protection Agency provided the above data but does not rank cities because various factors, such as monitoring locations, may affect the averages.

SOURCE: South Coast Air Quality Management District; Environmental Protection Agency