Los Angeles gets ‘F’ grade for air quality once again in national report

A hazy city skyline.
Greater Los Angeles remains the smoggiest metropolitan area in the nation, according to a Lung Assn. report card. Here, the Los Angeles skyline peeks out above a layer of smog in 2019.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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Despite tremendous progress in reducing air pollution over the last several decades, 98% of Californians live in communities with unhealthy levels of smog or fine particles, according to a new report released by the American Lung Assn.

Around 38.5 million California residents live in a county that received a failing grade in the Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report, which has served as a national scorecard for the two major air pollutants since 2000.

Although Southern California has witnessed fewer days with unhealthy levels of ozone in recent years, Greater Los Angeles remains the smoggiest metropolitan area in the nation, an infamous title the region has held in every report but one over the last 24 years. Meanwhile, the Central Valley cities of Bakersfield and Visalia tied for the country’s worst year-round levels of fine particle pollution.


Humboldt, Lake and Yolo were the only California counties not to receive an F in the report.

The Lung Assn. report underscores the pervasiveness of unhealthy air in the nation’s most populous state. Although California has made great strides in curbing smog-forming emissions from cars, it also highlights the daunting challenge facing environmental regulators trying to tamp down air pollution and move the world’s fourth-largest economy away from diesel-powered trucks, ships and trains.

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The report also comes at a time when the California Air Resources Board is poised to vote on two pivotal measures that would significantly curtail pollution from trucks, buses and locomotives operating within the state. If approved, these measures would prevent 5,000 premature deaths by 2050, according to clean air advocates.

“You can’t underestimate how important these two rules are combined,” said Will Barrett, national senior director for clean air advocacy at the Lung Assn. “They’ll save over 5,000 lives over their implementation, nearly $60 billion in public health benefits and a 90% cancer risk reduction in rail yard communities.”

Next week, the Air Resources Board members will vote on the so-called Advanced Clean Fleets proposal, which would establish zero-emission benchmarks for fleets of freight trucks, delivery vehicles, school buses and garbage trucks.

The board will also consider adopting a rule that would phase out older locomotives, limit idling and establish a framework for zero-emission locomotives.

These policies could have a significant impact in Southern California, where all four counties that make up the South Coast air district received F grades: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and part of San Bernardino. San Bernardino County, a hub of logistics centers and warehouses, had the worst smog pollution between 2019 and 2021, with an average of 177 unhealthy ozone days, the report said.

Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes (D-Colton) said she had introduced and advocated for bills that would address this pollution burden.


“In Southern California, there are over 200,000 children living with asthma.” Reyes said. “About 60,000 of them live in the Inland Empire with the worst ozone pollution in the nation. These families need our help and they need relief from the daily barrage of polluted air that follows truck routes and warehouses that are essentially being built on top of homes and elementary schools.”

Reyes said that the state must focus on cleaning up all local sources of pollution in order to reduce regional burdens.

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State and local officials have the authority to regulate pollution from in-state vehicles and industrial sources. However, in Southern California — a region that has long failed to achieve ozone standards set forth in the federal Clean Air Act — air officials have blamed Washington for local pollution.

This month, the South Coast Air Quality Management District sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, arguing the EPA has made it impossible to achieve clean air standards in the Los Angeles area.

While smog-forming nitrogen oxides from cars will be reduced by over 70% between 2012 and 2023, emissions from aircraft, locomotives, and oceangoing vessels — which all fall under federal jurisdiction — will increase by nearly 10% over this time period, according to the lawsuit. This includes the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, the largest fixed source of smog-forming emissions in the basin.

Wayne Nastri, the air district’s executive officer, said nitrogen oxides from these sources — along with heavy-duty trucks — need to be slashed by 60% if the region is to meet federal standards.


“We are continuing to meet with and work with EPA to develop solutions that can address our unique air quality issues as quickly as possible,” Nastri said in a statement.

“We need the federal government to take responsibility and work with us to develop actions that can really have an impact on air quality in Southern California,” Nastri said.

The Los Angeles Basin has become the poster child of smog since the first major appearance of toxic haze in the early 1940s. The region’s warm, sunny climate cooks tailpipe and smokestack emissions into lung-searing smog, while expansive mountain ranges trap this pollution in place.

The task of cleaning the air has become only more difficult with climate change. With higher temperatures and drier conditions, California experienced severe wildfires in 2020 and 2021. Hot, sunny conditions are more conducive to smog formation. Such was the case in September 2020 when Los Angeles County saw record-breaking heat and the highest concentrations of smog in 26 years in downtown L.A.

“I know that when we have our wildfires going here in California, my phone is going to start ringing at the office,” Dr. Sonal Patel, an allergy and immunology specialist, told reporters journalists during the release of the Lung Assn. study. “I know when I see those hazy smog days that my phone is going to start ringing in the office because my patients with asthma are going to start having trouble. Through no fault of their own, they cannot avoid the unhealthy air. I have seen these effects firsthand.”