Got Science? Podcast | Episode 47 Why California Has the Worst Air Pollution and What Can Be Done

November 27, 2018

Los Angeles native Prof. Edward Avol talks about the impacts of pollution on children—and why it’s so important to “keep on pushing” for strong clean air standards.

In this episode Ed Avol talks about:

  • The serious concerns about air quality in California
  • What makes today's air quality different than the air quality in the 50s and 60s
  • How air pollution can shape a child's lungs for life
  • Why he remains hopeful

Timing and cues:

  • Opener (0:00-0:52)
  • Intro (0:52-2:29)
  • Interview Part 1 (2:29-14:48)
  • Break (14:48-15:23)
  • Interview Part 2 (15:23-25:29)
  • This Week in Science History Throw (25:29-25:34)
  • This Week in Science History (25:34-27:26)
  • Outro (27:26-28:30)

Related content:

Full Transcript

Colleen: Ed, thanks for joining me on the "Got Science? Podcast."

Ed: Oh, thank you for giving me the chance to come and speak with you.

Colleen: So you study the effects of air pollution on the human body. I'd like to start first with the pollution itself. Can you tell us what type of pollution, what it's made up of?

Ed: Right. So I was gonna actually correct or at least amend your correction by saying that I actually study air pollution itself, the characterization of it, what's in the air. And then also air pollution's effect on people, what it does to you by breathing it in. So air pollution is a very technically complicated topic. There are thousands of chemicals in the air every day, both gases and particles. And particles you can think of as little pieces of dirt floating around in the air of different sizes, and shapes, and composition, and sources. So it really is a mixed bag of things, literally. Here in Southern California because of the sunlight and the generally wonderful weather we have, we have long days of ultraviolet sunlight which provides a means of cooking what's in the air, and causing new chemicals to be created through fold chemistry. And so we have both primary and secondary pollutants in the air, that is, ones that are directly emitted from tailpipes from cars, is the most common way people think about a car exhaust. But also from chimneys, and stationary power plants, and those sorts of things. And then we also have these new secondary pollutants that are created in the air.

In Southern California, we're in violation of the national and state standards for both particulate matter, that is these little pieces of dirt floating in the air, and for ozone which is a secondary contaminant that it's formed in the air. Both of those have a wide range of health effects and both of those have been the topic of much study to understand what those effects are, as well as much study to understand how we go about reducing them in the air, where they come from, how they are made, what we can do to intervene in that process. I spent 45 years studying both ends of this spectrum, trying to understand what to do about it, what the implications are for human health. And how do we go about understanding just what's out there, and how we can make a difference.

Colleen: What type of pollution is the most harmful?

Ed: I'm not sure we can rank it as a list of who is the most harmful. I think both are of serious concern. There are actually…there are many others that are of serious concern, but here in Southern California the two primary ones as I mentioned which we are in violation for is ozone and PM, particulate matter, of a specific size.. Ozone is a photochemical pollutant. It's a very reactive gas. So primarily, it's an outdoor pollutant when you're outside running around, exercising, and so forth. It's part of the group of pollutants for which one often associates historically, the eye irritation, the pain upon taking a deep breath, the chest irritation. But the particles that are in the air, the dirt that's floating in the air also cause a wide range of effects from both respiratory and very acute effects for some, to longer-term effects. Earlier in my career, I spent a lot of time at one of the county hospitals here in Los Angeles studying acute effects, short-term reversible effects that happen from just the basis of exercising for a few hours outside. Now, I'm interested more in the longer term question, what happens over the course of your lifetime of breathing these things?

Colleen: And have you seen any of the effects?

Ed: Yes, we have. I mean, they're both short-term and long-term effects, and under the Clean Air Act, we try to protect against both those. You might be interested in terms of long-term effects as being more serious in the sense that they could affect your entire life, or maybe even shorten your life because of the development of certain diseases later on in life.

Colleen: So what are some of the long-term effects?

Ed: The long-term effects can be everything from development of respiratory disease, to exacerbation of existing diseases, to loss of lung function, to development of other sort of problems not respiratory. It turns out that when you breathe pollution in, and it gets across your lung air-blood barrier, it gets into the blood system, and then it can go to any organ system in the body. And so we are seeing effects in the literature now in many other organ systems, in the kidney, in the liver, in the brain. So we're seeing neurological effects as well as respiratory, as well as pulmonary, effects on the heart, effects on the metabolic system in terms of obesity, diabetes. Now, air pollution is not the primary cause of diabetes or some of these other metabolic diseases, but it plays a role in these things. Air pollution may not be the primary cause for some of the neurological issues we see, but it's a part of the story. And that's what we're finding out now that it has a role in many other organ systems besides just the lung.

Colleen: You said that ozone was the cause of sort of the itchy eyes and the pain when you breathe. What are the effects of particulate matter?

Ed: So particulate matter generally has been seen to be pretty important on the long-term chronic effects. It has effects on development of respiratory disease. It can affect and has been associated with exacerbation of asthma and respiratory problems. It's been associated with cardiopulmonary, the development of heart disease, exacerbation of heart disease. Been associated with development of atherosclerosis, thickening of the arteries, which can lead to both stroke, neurologic problems as well as infarctions, heart attacks. It's been associated with decline in neurological function, in cognitive function, the ability to think, to do motor coordination skills, to learn, to pay attention. It's been associated with autism. So development in children, and I might say that, although I have studied in my career a number of different segments of the population, much of my studies have been devoted to studying children, to understand what happens to them because of the extended life trajectory. And how these early life exposures may affect their entire life.

Pollution affects people in many ways and ultimately, there's a lot of data that suggests that it not only shapes that trajectory of health. But it can actually shorten it because it impacts, for example, lung function growth while children are growing. So they never attain full growth. And after about age 25 or so we all start to decline a little bit each year, a little more if we smoke, a little more if we have occupational exposures, a little more if we're genetically pre-disposed. So a number reasons why it might accelerate, but certainly, air pollution is part of that. And at some point, you could lose enough function that it literally is difficult to breathe. And so, we wanna see every child get a healthy start, a maximum growth, and stay up on that curve for as long as possible.

Colleen: So how do you do that? If the pollution is out there, how do you keep a child from being exposed to it?

Ed: Well, so we do a couple of things. First of all, we try to provide the objective scientific evidence for which regulators can develop policies to protect the public self, that is, to reduce the pollution. One encouraging thing we've seen is that while a child is growing, cleaning up the air outside can make a measurable difference in that child's life. If you clean up the air where they are breathing, they actually will start to accelerate in their growth shortly thereafter.

Colleen: So it's that quick?

Ed: So it's within a year or so for those children that are still growing. Now, your lungs grow to your late teens while you're a girl, your early 20s if you're a boy. And so during those first 20 years of life, it's really important to do something about air quality because it affects that generation. For your brain, it's the first 30 years of life. And so we can do things that will change the outcomes during that timeframe.

Colleen: So this doesn't necessarily bode well for those of us who are a little older, and grew up, say, in the LA area in the '60s or '50s or early '70s when pollution was really bad before the Clean Air Act. Can you describe what it was like then, why it was so polluted? And then we'll get into the Clean Air Act.

Ed: So I can describe why it was the way it was because I lived through it. I'm a child that grew up here in LA. I'm an LA Unified School kid. And I remember it being so smoggy here that visually, you couldn't see the mountains. You didn't even know there were mountains virtually 325 days of the year. And all through my junior high school and high school days, I remember many days where one would cough for days at a time because of breathing the air. I remember being called in from activities on the playgrounds. There were days we couldn't play outside because of the air pollution. Since then, people don't appreciate how far Los Angeles has come. It really has dramatically improved.

Colleen: Let's talk about that a little bit about how that happened. What was the major cause of the pollution back in the '50s, '60s?

Ed: Well, in the '50s and '60s, although air pollution was a bigger...became a big issue in California by the late '40s, early '50s, and there were actually air pollution control districts established then. And the state took a really leading role in trying to control it, much of the pollution was pretty much unregulated. That is, stationary sources, power plants, refineries, chemical industry, etc., were emitting much what's…I mean, with some fairly basic controls, much was coming out the exhaust. Cars were the same way. Cars were pretty much operating with minimal controls in the system, and so getting there was very dirty, cars off the road. Getting controls on the stationary sources really was sort of the first order of business. Now in Southern California, the first focus was stationary sources, things that don't move. And so we took a really...we took a very aggressive role, a stance in terms of controlling refineries, power plants, any sort of stationary operations. So by the early 1990s, those were all pretty much controlled. And then we started to move increasingly aggressively from the late '60s on, on cars, on emission systems going to low emission vehicles, changing the formulation of gas, requiring that you have a semiannual smog check so that your car was demonstrated to be clean before you can reregister it for use on the roads. Now in California, the environment is sufficiently nice that you can drive 20, 30, 40-year-old vehicles on the road.

We don't have salt on the roads. We don't have snow. We don't have much rain. So the cars sort of stay on the road and don't rust out which from the standpoint of air pollution, it was a bad thing.

Colleen: Are some communities more affected by pollution than others?

Ed: Certainly there are some that are physically closer to certain sources. For example if you live closer to a freeway, busy roadway or highway. Living close to a refinery or a powerplant, so it’s sort of right in the midst of your community. But the other issue that’s more insidious is that those communities that are economically disadvantaged, that don’t have the political voice, that don’t have the economic voice. That are busy trying to make enough money to keep a shelter over their family’s heads and food on their table, they don’t have the wherewithal to hire a researcher to provide the information that’s available to others. And that’s known as environmental justice communities.

Colleen: Right, when your life is taken up by feeding your family, getting to work, you don’t have anything left at the end of the day.

Ed: You know in some ways it’s sort of considered a luxury, that you could fight for the health of your community, but environmental justice is all about making sure that everybody has a right to live and work and play under the same conditions.


Colleen: I was poking around on the internet and I found the American Lung Association tally of the most polluted cities by ozone, year-round and short-term particle pollution. So LA and Bakersfield, California were high on the list, if not number one and number two, up there in the sort of the top five. And many other cities in California were on the list and that really surprised me because I think of California as really leading the way in reducing emissions. So how is it that even with the Clean Air Act and cleaning things up that California still has the highest pollution?

Ed: So the American Lung Association every year sort of looks at the air monitoring data from around the country. And lists, ranks communities based on how often they exceed the standards, and what those levels are, and you're exactly right. If you look at the...of the rankings for both short-term and long-term PM and for ozone, I think it's 6 out of 10, maybe even more. Of the top ranked communities are California communities. Part of that has to do with the nature of our air quality problem that is because of these long days of sunlight, relatively stable air masses over these communities, they sort of...literally they sit and cook. The air sits and cooks over the communities, and so we have two sort of broad areas in California that are problems. One is the Los Angeles region. As the breeze sort of sets up in the morning and slowly blows east from the ocean towards inland across Los Angeles, everything sort of cooks, and moves across the freeway system and out to Riverside and east of Los Angeles. And then we have the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Valley which everything's you can think of sort of as a tailpipe of exhaust. Things come from San Francisco and just run on down through Bakersfield, and all that time it sort of sit…cooked.

It's trapped between two mountain ranges, can't move out of it. Sits and cooks and all the emissions sort of go into the air and the chemicals just sort of mix like a big soup. And it's been very difficult because of the population, and the nature of activities in both places to clean up those places and get them off the list, at least move them further down the list.

Colleen: So what's the first thing you would do to fix that situation?

Ed: I think the biggest things that have been effective have been automotive-based policies, doing things for the car emission systems, doing things for the trucks, moving to cleaner vehicles. Again, as I mentioned before, the turnover of the fleet and the cars has helped some because people like to have the newest car. Trucks, heavy-duty trucks, now we're talking primarily the big 18 wheel sort of variety are much more expensive, and much slower to turn over. So developing an incentive program that gets the older trucks off the road and shifts to a cleaner truck has helped, and the state and the regional agencies have helped towards that. Now that we're moving away from diesel and gasoline into electrification, there's really an enthusiasm for seeing that accelerate, moving to an electrification of the fleet which will dramatically improve. Now it doesn't completely solve the problem because somewhere, that electricity has to be generated. So you need to think about what's happening back at the plant, but it's much easier to control and reduce emissions at one source, at a plant, or at a number of plants, than it is to try and clean them up at the millions and millions of vehicle exhausts as everybody drives around throughout the state.

Colleen: So what are the main challenges?

Ed: Well, there still remain a number of challenges. First, we have to acknowledge that we are still in violation of the Clean Air Act. We do not meet the standards based on the best available knowledge for either ozone or PM. And so we need to think about what the sources of the constituents that go into making ozone and PM are. Part of that certainly, are motor vehicles. Part of that are stationary sources, but in the area of motor vehicles and the area of mobile sources, one of the things we've only begun to appreciate in the last few decades is the importance of other sources of mobile vehicles, that is ships, maritime ships. We operate here in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest ports in the country, and because of our proximity to the Asian countries, to the Pacific Rim, we are essentially the stopping point, the entry point to the United States for much of the goods that come to it. So all of our phones, computers, electronic appliances, clothing, come to us increasingly from overseas which means it comes to our ports. Now, there are other ports besides just Los Angeles and Long Beach, but far and away, Los Angeles and Long Beach are the largest ports.

It turns out that when we actually got down to looking at it, the area source, thinking about the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach which are physically exactly adjacent to each other. And sort of by a drawing a line in the sand separate one from the other, that source was accountable for almost half of the sulfur in the air across Southern California, and a quarter of the PM on a daily basis across Southern California. So these are big issues, and cleaning up the port could make a big difference, and a lot of the emphasis from the state, a lot of the emphasis in terms of looking at pollution control has been to try and clean up the ports.

Colleen: So what does it mean to not be in compliance with the EPA regulations? What happens?

Ed: Every five years under the Clean Air Act the federal government is supposed to review the best available science, and make some judgment and a recommendation to the President as to what the standards ought to be to protect the public's health. There's a tremendous amount of information becoming available as we get more sophisticated, and more understanding of what the health consequences are. As we learn more, we've tended to tighten and tighten and tighten the standard, that is, to lower the allowable emissions essentially. And we do monitoring across the country to determine if we are in or out of compliance, that is, if we are above or below that number that is set. All those places that are typically above that number are judged to be out of compliance. All those places below that number are in compliance, and we're out of compliance.

Colleen: And are there any consequences?

Ed: Well, there are a number of consequences. First of all, from the public health consequence, we're basically saying that it's unhealthy to breathe. It's not good for your health, your overall health, and we can talk about what the details of those might be. In the regulatory sense, if you continue to be out of compliance and don't provide the federal government with the means by which you're going to get into compliance, there are all sorts of things that can happen including the federal government coming in and taking over operations to make sure you get into compliance, the holding back of federal funds to support a number of activities in your state, and the shutting down of certain industries etc.

Colleen: So with the current situation at the EPA where they're not enforcing rules, regulations in a very strong way, what worries you the most? Do you think California can continue on its trajectory?

Ed: Well, so what has happened in the most current administration is this pushback that moving so aggressively to clean up the air by continuing to require reduction of emissions has somehow been construed as adversely affecting the economy. And that there's a sense that it's out of kilter that we should have to rebalance the equation somehow by allowing industry to develop and progress. And that has resulted, unfortunately, in my personal opinion in the relaxation, or the non-enforcement of existing standards. And as that has changed, the problem is it continues to provide a mechanism for people to be exposed, for health effects to continue, for the health of the public to degrade and deteriorate. And the very frustrating thing is that for children, we're talking about their life, their whole life. I mean, I often think about this in the terms of a gardener and a tree. When you have a little sapling of a tree, you can teach it essentially to grow straight by tying it to a stick and having it go straight, or you can tie it to a rope, and continue to pull on the rope, and have it bend. And that, in some ways, is not a bad analogy for thinking about how a child's lungs are growing. So if the air quality is poor, their lung growth starts to bend like that sapling, and we have no information that it ever straightens out.

And the downstream health cost of that, the increased disease we're going to see because we know from thousands of measurements that a poor start in respiratory health leads to a poor finish in terms of mortality, disease, etc. We know we're setting the stage for very difficult times ahead.

Colleen: Is there anything that gives you hope?

Ed: Things that give me hope are that, you know, science is very resourceful. You know, historically we can look back and we can point to times when industry said, "There's no way we're gonna be able to reduce emissions. There's no way we can make cars cleaner. This is impossible. It's gonna cost us too much money. The technology doesn't exist." And at every step of the way, American technology had developed solutions. We've come out of this with newer, cleaner vehicles. We've come out of this with cleaner operating conditions. We've come out of this with cleaner fuels, and so that, I think, gives me some optimism. The advances that we're making in health research to understand earlier and earlier what these small subtle changes might mean to identify little changes when it's much easier to correct those little changes before they become major problems are encouraging, but we have to keep at it. We have to keep pushing.

Colleen: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Ed, thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Ed: Well, thank you.

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This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald