Skip to main content

Why is California 'worst'?

By David Pettit
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
 A <a href='http://www.latimes.com/science/la-top-10-most-polluted-cities-20140430-html,0,3083737.htmlstory#axzz30OAKFu88' target='_blank'>2014 report</a> ranks cities that have the worst air quality. San Francisco, California, is among them. A 2014 report ranks cities that have the worst air quality. San Francisco, California, is among them.
HIDE CAPTION
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
The most polluted cities in the U.S.
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new report lists the most polluted cities in the U.S., including several California cities
  • David Pettit: There are too many cars and trucks, oil refineries and industrial facilities
  • He says Los Angeles, for example, needs to massively expand its public transit system
  • Pettit: California needs to accelerate development of clean, renewable energy

Editor's note: David Pettit is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Los Angeles frequently had "Stage 3" smog alerts when I was a kid, meaning that we weren't supposed to play outside. Fortunately, those days are over. Air quality in California, including Los Angeles, has vastly improved from decades ago. But compared to other states and to the Federal Clean Air Act health standards, California is way behind on cleaning up its air pollution.

The American Lung Association (ALA) just released its annual "State Of The Air" report listing the most polluted cities in the United States. Of the seven worst cities ranked as having the worst air quality, six -- including Los Angeles - are in California, despite the state having the toughest regulations in the country. Why is this?

The two biggest air pollution culprits are transportation sources such as cars and trucks and stationary sources such as oil refineries and industrial facilities. The ALA rankings look at two different pollutants: ozone (smog) and fine particulate matter.

Ground-level ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds "cook" in sunlight to produce ozone. This mix of chemicals largely stems from the burning of fossil fuels: the pollution that comes from our power plants and industrial facilities and from the exhaust pipes of our cars, trucks, ships and trains.

The ozone smog that comes from this chemical stew burns the eyes, makes breathing painful and can cause chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and can worsen asthma. Children are at greatest risk from exposure because their lungs are still developing, and they are more likely to be active outdoors when ozone levels are high. Rising temperatures from climate change will only serve to spur even more of this pollution.

Particulate matter, the other major air pollutant in cities, is often smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Just like ozone, fossil fuel combustion at power plants and by cars and trucks plays a major role in its production. The very small particles can lodge deep in the lungs, causing health risks such as premature death in people with heart or lung disease, asthma aggravation and decreased lung function. Children and seniors are at the greatest risk from particulate pollution. And we're seeing these human health impacts all across Southern California and the Central Valley.

If you've been to L.A., you know how bad the traffic is -- it can take me 2 hours to drive the 18 miles from my office to Dodger Stadium. All those vehicles contribute to Southern California's horrible air pollution. It's true that cars now emit fewer pollutants -- due to regulation at the federal and state level -- but Los Angeles simply has too many cars for the carrying capacity of the region. A massive increase in public transit, hybrid and zero-emission cars and trucks is a sound solution to help alleviate this pollution.

The intense truck traffic on L.A.'s freeways is a symptom of the L.A. area ports' successes. Over 80% of all U.S. imports from Asia come through these ports, and roughly 40% of those imports are moved by diesel trucks. California state air regulators have taken strong steps to clean up the diesel truck fleet, but we are far from where we need to be -- diesel trucks, collectively, are still an enormous source of particulate pollution.

Another solution is replacing fossil-fueled trucks that haul cargo containers to and from Los Angeles' ports with zero-emission freight movement systems such as electric trucks. Ports and regulators have already spent many millions of dollars developing these sensible 21st century systems, but industry has yet to deploy them.

The San Joaquin Valley, California's other pollution center, is largely a rural area and home to the state's agricultural industry. The wide, flat valley, like Los Angeles, is surrounded by mountains that trap air. Since the valley's population is growing, there are also more cars and trucks. And two major north-south truck routes, I-5 and U.S. 99, bisect the valley. Off-road vehicles used in agriculture as well as agricultural practices such as burning off fields also contribute to particulate matter overload. I drove through the valley on my way to Yosemite National Park last October, but the smog was so thick I couldn't see the Sierra Nevada range until I was there.

Bottom line: too many cars and trucks, and too much fossil fuel combustion by vehicles, power plants and industry are the problem. And climate change is only making it worse.

But there's hope: California leads the movement towards a clean, renewable energy future, and if we can accelerate that transition, we have a fighting chance of getting off the ALA's "worst" list.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT