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Environment & Science

What you need to know about the air you’re breathing




The downtown skyline is enveloped in smog shortly before sunset on November 17, 2006 in Los Angeles.
The downtown skyline is enveloped in smog shortly before sunset on November 17, 2006 in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Angelenos who've lived in the area for many years probably remember the “smog days” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when air quality was a regular topic of discussion. Now, unless there’s a wildfire, the L.A. Basin is a place where folks feel free to breathe easy. On Wednesday however, the L.A. Times reported that the Southland has more than 2,000 people dying early every year from breathing polluted air.

But what exactly is causing Southern California’s air to be the most polluted in the nation?

Southern California has the nation’s highest levels of ozone, the corrosive gas in smog, according to the Times. The region doesn't meet federal standards for fine particles, harmful soot and chemical-laden specks of pollution that can negatively affect lungs — especially for people living in the Inland Empire.

In the past, the drought affected particulate matter levels, the South Coast Air Quality Management District's Phillip Fine said — but ozone is summertime's smog problem. High temperatures and stagnate weather contribute to elevated levels of the gas.

“Our biggest issue over the last month or two has been the ozone levels,” he said.

Though most SoCal residents tend to overlook the constant haze that looms over the city, Bonnie Holmes-Gen of the American Lung Association of California said it’s important to remember that it’s more than just brown air — it poses risks to our health.

“Breathing ozone and particle pollution or soot, as we call it, can literally shorten lives and create emergencies,” Holmes-Gen said. 

The corrosive gas in smog can cause burns in lung tissue, which paired with the effects of particle pollution can contribute to asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, she said.

Fine said the levels of pollution are nowhere near those in the ‘70s and '80s — they’re more similar to those in 2009 — but the district still issues advisories when there’s going to be elevated levels of air pollutants.

You can download the South Coast Air Quality Management District smartphone app here to be kept up to date on the air quality in your area.

Guests:

Tony Barboza, L.A. Times reporter covering air quality and the environment

Phillip Fine, Deputy Executive Officer, South Coast Air Quality Management District

Bonnie Holmes-Gen, Senior Policy Director for the American Lung Association of California (ALAC) in Sacramento; her organization puts out a yearly air quality report, which you can check out here