Pollution Makes a Comeback With Warm, Dry Weather

From The Orange County Register

By David Danelski / Staff Writer

So much for a winter reprieve from air pollution.

The unusually dry and warm weather that has made us the envy of the frigid East has a toxic downside.

Southern California is in the midst of an unusual smog event – an elevation of soot and other harmful tiny particles at a time of year when our air should be at its cleanest. Experts say the lack of rain and the warm days are to blame.

It’s a serious issue, because even short-term exposure can trigger breathing problems and heart attacks, studies have found.

Dr. Mark Ellis, chief of allergy and immunology at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, said the increased particles, along with more respiratory illnesses during winter months, have led to more asthma attacks.

“It’s been a significant factor in many of the sick patients we’ve seen in the past few months,” Ellis said. “This is a very high-risk time, this year, for people with respiratory problems.”

Ellis said he advises patients to take medication, reduce outdoor activities and use HEPA air filters.

Moreno Valley mom Amanda Markel said she can tell the difference when she rides her bicycle.

“The air just seems dirty,” said the mother of four. “It is not the clean air we are used to getting in January.”

An analysis of four years of pollution data shows January rarely sees high levels of fine particles. This month, however, some monitoring stations – in Long Beach and Anaheim – have recorded more bad days than in all of last year.

Stations in Anaheim, Long Beach and Jurupa Valley measured unhealthful levels on six days this month. Los Angeles had four days and Riverside, five. The pollution is considered unhealthful when the 24-hour average exceeds the federal clean air standard, which is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

One result of the trend has been a spate of warnings from air quality officials against lighting up the fireplace at home, since wood smoke contributes to fine-particle pollution. Seven burn bans have been imposed since Nov. 1, including one Thursday in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Most of them have been this month.

The same weather pattern that last week compelled Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency also is responsible for the downturn in air quality.

A ridge of high pressure locked over the West Coast is diverting storms that originate in the Pacific Ocean and normally would bring rain to Southern California, said Joe Cassmassi, a South Coast Air Quality Management District meteorologist.

“The storms have an effective method of cleaning the atmosphere, but now you have day after day of potential stagnation,” Cassmassi said.

Raindrops form around pieces of soot and tiny particles, carrying them to the ground. Each storm brings in fresh air from the sea, which dilutes and replaces foul air, Cassmassi said.

Studies have linked fine particles to health problems, including lower birth weights and stunted lung development in children and heart attacks in adults. More recent studies also have suggested such pollution may increase the risk for autism and other brain ailments.

Staff writer Courtney Perkes contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 951-368-9471 or ddanelski@pe.com