Documenting the Dangers of Smog : <i> Researchers are examining the long-term effects of air pollution, particularly on children. : </i>
Jason Carrion, 15, and his friend, Bill, clad in baggy T-shirts and long shorts, stopped their bicycles and surveyed the gray smog devouring all but a faint silhouette of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.
“It bothers us, when we’re riding our bikes especially, because it gets hard to breathe,” Jason said that recent afternoon in San Dimas.
The eyes sting. Deep breaths are painful. The throat is scratchy. These are well-documented discomforts brought on by exposure to the heavy smog that often shrouds the San Gabriel Valley, from Pasadena to Pomona.
But what about the long-term damage? There have been projections, but the precise effects remain a mystery, says an expert from USC.
“We’ve had pollution here for more than 40 years and nobody has done a study on chronic effects,” said Dr. John M. Peters, director of occupational and environmental medicine at USC. “Is it the lifetime exposure (that causes damage)? Is it the last year’s exposure? Is it the one-hour high ozone peak during the day? There’s just so much we don’t know.”
Soon, however, they hope to have some answers.
For more than two years, Peters and a team of researchers have been immersed in an exhaustive study to answer numerous questions about local air pollution and pinpoint the damage that three categories of pollutants inflict on the lungs.
About 3,700 children from a dozen communities throughout California are taking part in the 10-year study, which includes extensive air monitoring and lung testing. In San Dimas, Jason Carrion and about 280 other youths are participating.
The hope is that the study will provide precise information so that policy-makers can set exacting air-pollution regulations and impose tougher controls, if need be, on lung-damaging emissions, Peters said.
Currently, pollution-control regulations and safety precautions are based on studies of short-term exposure and reactions. Experts project permanent lung damage based on those studies, he said.
“If you’re starting to destroy lungs,” Peters said, “you’re willing to spend more money” to prevent the damage.
Some of the study communities were chosen because they have dirty air. Others were included because they have clean air. The rest are somewhere in the middle.
“San Dimas is one of the communities high in all three (types of pollutants),” Peters said.
That’s no surprise.
When it comes to smog, the San Gabriel Valley is just about tops on every researcher’s list. It is California’s ozone laboratory and the nation’s as well. In fact, area communities have been included in three other major air pollution studies in recent years.
Ozone is a colorless gas that, when high in the atmosphere, protects the Earth against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. But at ground level ozone irritates the eyes and airways, resulting in sore throats, wheezing, coughs and shortness of breath.
Experts also fear that ozone tears at the lungs, damaging sensitive tissue and reducing a person’s ability to absorb life-sustaining oxygen and the body’s ability to ward off lung disease.
Historically, the most unhealthful ozone levels in the basin have been detected in the eastern San Gabriel Valley in Glendora, Azusa, San Dimas and neighboring communities, according to data from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The AQMD regulates air pollution in Los Angeles and Orange counties and portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The AQMD’s monitoring station in Glendora logged ozone levels in excess of state clean air standards on 148 days last year. Only one monitoring station--in Redlands in San Bernardino County--registered more days, with 160. The Glendora zone topped the list in 1992, when ozone levels exceeded state standards on 164 days.
Smog levels in the eastern San Gabriel Valley reached the more serious first-stage alert levels 19 times last year. The area is on the same pace this year with 10 first-stage alerts as Tuesday, according to the AQMD. That category of smog alert means it is unhealthful for anyone to exercise outdoors.
The AQMD’s three other San Gabriel Valley monitoring stations also have documented plenty of lung-searing days, although not as many as at the Glendora station. Those stations are in Pasadena, Azusa and Diamond Bar.
Some of the smog is created locally by the valley’s industry and traffic. But a large amount is imported, with weather and geography conspiring against clear skies.
Sea breezes blow pollutants from Los Angeles into the valley. The area takes a second hit from southwesterly winds that come off the ocean and blow Long Beach’s industrial emissions through the Whittier Narrows and into the eastern San Gabriel Valley.
The trip from the coast takes just enough time for the sun to bake the pollutants into a witch’s brew of ozone and other unhealthful compounds.
“The San Gabriel Valley is the primary receptor zone for emissions from the 6 to 9 (a.m.) rush hour, plus industrial activities,” said Joe Cassmassi, AQMD’s senior meteorologist. “By the time the sun kicks in, the air mass has started to make its way to the San Gabriel Valley.”
When Peters and his colleagues designed their study, it was natural to include the smoggiest part of the smoggiest area; the AQMD’s Glendora monitoring zone includes San Dimas.
In addition to ozone, San Dimas has high levels of fine particulates, some of which are carcinogenic, as well as airborne acidic compounds, which also take a toll on the lungs.
Upland is the other community in the study with similar smog problems. The others have cleaner air.
Alpine, in San Diego County, for example, has a moderate ozone problem and low levels of particulates and acid vapors, Peters said. To the north, Lompoc, Santa Maria and Atascadero were included in the study as clean-air communities.
“If there are chronic effects, we have a chance to learn what pollutant in the air is responsible,” said Peters, who works out of a cramped office in a converted apartment building near County-USC Medical Center.
The USC researchers--doctors, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, computer modelers and social scientists--decided to use children in the study because youngsters spend more time outdoors and are exposed to more pollutants.
In addition, researchers say, adults would have complicating factors such as smoking or working around harmful substances.
When the study began more than two years ago, the children ranged in age from 9 to 18. The researchers plan to follow the youngest subjects into adulthood, producing 10 years of data.
The USC researchers plan to shed light on the long-term health risks of smog by tracking the growth of the lungs of their young subjects.
The lungs of males continue to grow into the mid-20s, whereas the lungs of females develop several years earlier. “Then you spend the rest of your life losing lung capacity,” Peters said.
To track the growth, researchers have the children blow as hard as they can into monitors that measure lung capacity. Most of the children are tested once a year at school.
Jason Carrion, the 15-year-old on the bicycle, was tested as an eighth-grader at Lone Hill Intermediate School in San Dimas.
He also answered myriad questions posed by the researchers. How many hours does he spend outdoors? How long does he exercise each day? How much television does he watch?
Jason said it’s a bit tiring having to blow into that machine, but he enjoys participating in the study because “then I know how many liters of air I can breathe.”
Other youths undergo more extensive, three-day testing at home in addition to the school-based tests.
Tony Vanelli, 11, had a portable breathing monitor in his home for two three-day periods during the past year. He blew into the machine, which measured his lung capacity, several times a day.
In addition, he wore a heart monitor that tracked his state of physical exertion.
So far, USC researchers have spent about $4.5 million, with the California Air Resources Board and USC providing most of the funding. About half of that money has gone toward documenting the pollution exposure levels for children in the area, Peters said.
The researchers are using an array of stationary monitors to test air quality at selected homes and neighborhood schools.
In addition, the researchers have equipped some children with personal pollution monitors as part of the study. But the accuracy of the so-called ozone badges, which resemble plastic whistles, is still being tested, Peters said.
Still in its early stages, the research already has produced some interesting tidbits.
It’s common knowledge, for example, that ozone levels drop indoors as the pollutant reacts with carpets, curtains and even clothes. But data collected in the USC study indicates that ozone levels inside school buildings are less than half of what they are outdoors, an unexpectedly sharp drop, Peters said.
Still, the real fruits of the study will not be realized for years, once all the data is in and analyzed.
In the meantime, several parents said they are glad their children are taking part in research into one of the area’s most pressing environmental problems.
The parents said they realized that the air quality in San Dimas was poor, but for one reason or another, they had decided to tolerate the smog. They take precautions, they added, such as keeping their children indoors during first-stage smog alerts.
“It’s scary,” said Karen Vanelli, Tony’s mother. “Hopefully there’s going to be an answer. Maybe it’s not going to help in his development, but maybe for someone else down the road.”