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Maria Fotopoulos: There’s Something in California’s Air, and It’s Awful

When we were planning a move to Los Angeles some 25 years ago, my marching orders when looking for a place to live were “Santa Monica or the Westside, close to the water.” Those are desirable places to live, yes, but the overriding factor was air quality — better air closer to the water was the thinking.

There had been considerable improvement in air quality by the time we moved to Los Angeles’ Westside versus decades earlier, so I could hardly imagine how bad it had been in the 1970s, and earlier years, as I’d head to work each day, driving south on the 405 freeway — known as the busiest highway in the country — on mornings that were depressingly gray and smoggy, and not just on the “June Gloom” days of Southern California.

No longer a commuter, I now don’t have the regular reminders of how bad the air can be, but there are moments. Several weeks ago, I traveled east on the 10 freeway — another one of the busiest roadways in America — to meet family at Papa Cristo’s near Downtown in the Byzantine-Latino Quarter.

A sunless day, immediately I was struck by how gray, dull and ugly everything appeared. The little bit of greenery and too-few trees along the route competed with trash for their ground and looked dirty, dull and oppressed, working overtime to process particulate matter. (Andy Lipkis of TreePeople has the right idea — planting more trees here. It’s just not happening fast enough in my view.)

Other reminders are much closer — in our actual living space, which seems to be in a perpetual state of needing to be cleaned, and that’s not due to my poor housekeeping.

Unlike living in the Midwest, my earlier home, where a level of dust might be visible, say, within a week if dusting hadn’t been done, here a black blanket reappears almost as soon as it’s wiped away. It’s the fine particulates from vehicles, even though we’re several miles from freeways.

So as more and more housing complexes started being added right next to Los Angeles freeways (did I mention how busy they are?) and high-traffic streets, I often wondered as I passed by them how much black grunge folks living there had to routinely clean up (and breathe!), and did they just try to keep their apartments hermetically sealed?

Many of these complexes have fancy-sounding names, but marketing and high rental prices can’t hide the reality of living right off of polluted traffic corridors.

California’s unchecked population growth means a demand for more housing and, certainly in the case of an already very built-out L.A., in marginal spaces. How many more will be packed into areas ill-suited for habitation in the state, I ask myself? And then answer ... another 12 million, to a total 51 million by 2060, as immigration continues to fuel the growth.

Smog has worsened for two consecutive years in Southern California, and it’s hardly a stretch to think there might be a connection to this relentless population growth.

Some situations are much worse than others, but, overall, there’s really no refuge from pollution here. According to a Los Angeles Times article, traffic pollution can drift more than a mile from a freeway, registering highest late at night and early in the morning.

“It’s not only your distance from traffic, but other details such as wind patterns, freeway design, the time of day and the types of cars, trucks and buildings around you that determine the risk,” UCLA atmospheric researchers found.

That’s borne out in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2017 report. By the measurement of ozone, Los Angeles-Long Beach top the list of most polluted American cities. Six other California metro areas make the Top 10 ozone pollution list as well.

Measured by year-round particle pollution, seven California metro areas also make the Top 10. And six California metro areas make the Top 10 list for short-term particle pollution.

And it’s not just people who suffer the ill-effects of bad air. Some of our areas believed to be sanctuaries, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, have some of the worst air pollution of any U.S. national parks.

According to the National Park Service, with the parks downwind of many air pollution sources — from agriculture and industry to highways — pollutants are carried into the park and negatively affect the rich biodiversity of both flora and fauna. The situation is so bad that at times the ozone levels in some areas of the parks at times exceed human health standards.

Add bad air to a long list of California problems, and it’s not surprising that California is one of the Top 5 states people are leaving. California may not be able to carry its Golden State moniker for long.

— Maria Fotopoulos writes about the connection between overpopulation and biodiversity loss, and is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. Follow her on Twitter: @TurboDog50. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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