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Op-Ed: Escaping Alhambra’s air pollution

  • Alhambra on a day with poor air quality. Photo by Alex Rivest.

  • View from Alhambra looking towards the San Gabriel Mountains. Just eight miles away, the mile-high mountains are often impossible to see because of the toxic air quality in the Greater Los Angeles area. Photo by Alex Rivest.

  • Inside the ACT bus at 5:42 p.m. Photo by Daniel Flores

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

I have spent the last five years living in Alhambra. I have loved the food, the parks and the views of the mountains. I have made many friends and have been inspired by local groups that fight for good governance, for preservation of Alhambra’s uniqueness and for the environment. Alhambra is a dynamic place that feels like home.

So it is with a sad heart that I am forced to leave. Forced by the fact that I’m lucky enough to have a choice to leave and because of that, I cannot morally stay.

Simply put, Alhambra is a toxic place to live. Every single breath taken in Alhambra is toxic to your lungs, to your brain and to your longevity.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, I understand that the air quality is “better than it used to be,” a phrase which seems to be the only answer I get when I bring this topic up.

Yes, it is better. But it is still deadly. You should know about it and you should keep pressure on your local, state, and federal government to try and make improvements. I understand though that it feels like the state and federal government won’t listen at the moment.

However, your voice can be heard at the city level in Alhambra. There is an election coming and three seats on the City Council are open. Make this a campaign issue. Ask the question, “What specifically do you propose to make the air quality in Alhambra better for my kids and my grandkids?”

Los Angeles County, which Alhambra is a part of, has the worst air in the country. We get an “F” from the American Lung Association. And since this organization has started monitoring air quality across the country, Los Angeles has been the worst for ozone pollution and things were were worse this year than last. In their 2018 State of the Air report the American Lung Association said that over the past three years, Los Angeles County experienced an average of 212 days per year where the ozone was “unhealthy for sensitive populations;” 73 days where the ozone was “unhealthy” and 6 days where the ozone was “very unhealthy.” Ozone pollution is at unhealthy levels for individuals in the community nearly 80 percent of the time. This is unacceptable.

The EPA’s website points to science showing that long-term exposure to ozone can lead to permanent lung-damage and abnormal lung development in children. It can also aggravate asthma, cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and make it hard to breathe. In other words, the air you’re breathing now is the worst in the country. Yet your local leaders do not take this seriously enough to make it a constant talking point.

Particle pollution is also a problem. How many days a year are there where you can’t even see the San Gabriel Mountains? They are a mere eight miles away and yet there is usually so much stuff in the air that you can’t see mile-high mountains.

Another measurement of air quality is particulate matter (PM), which measures matter that is suspended in the air. Particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5) cause health problems because they penetrate into the regions of the lungs that exchange gases. The Los Angeles-Long Beach area is the fourth worst metropolitan area for particle pollution in the state. For PM 2.5 levels, the EPA’s cutoff for healthy air is 12 micrograms of particulate matter for every cubic meter of air. From the EPA’s own data, the 2014-2016 annual average for the Los Angeles-South Coast Air basin was 14.5 micrograms per cubic meter.

As you can see, the air over the course of a year, each year, is toxic. Exposure to particle pollution is linked to asthma, lung cancer, premature death. By living in the awful air of Los Angeles County, you will live eight months less than you would if the air were clean!

Particle pollution can also lead to developmental delays in children. One recent study demonstrated that particulate matter causes diabetes. Another study published in “Biological Psychiatry” looked at particle pollution on the brain development of children. The findings are downright scary. The air you breathe while your child is in utero has a noticeable effect on brain development:

Exposure to fine particles during fetal life was related to child brain structural alterations of the cerebral cortex and these alterations partially mediated the association between exposure to fine particles during fetal life and impaired child inhibitory control. Such cognitive impairment at early ages could have significant long-term consequences.

With all of this information, and knowing that air pollution kills three-times more people per year than AIDS, TB and malaria combined, when I made the choice to leave, it turns out that air quality was the primary factor  for me and my family. I never thought I would be a “clean-air refugee.”

For those of you who will stay in the greater L.A. area, the Los Angeles Times recently published an article with detailed information about how to protect yourself.

I think you should all know the data, the risks and not be satisfied with someone saying “it’s better than it used to be.” When you can, vote for people who care about this issue, who care about your day-to-day health. In Alhambra this fall, fill the City Council with people who will think about the one thing that ties us all together in Alhambra, the one thing that we all suffer from and the one thing that many of us don’t have a choice to run from: the air.

Alex Rivest obtained a BS in biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and his PhD in neuroscience from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His scientific works have been published in Science, Nature Neuroscience and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. He is currently developing feature films and television shows around these stories.

For a side-by-side comparison of good air quality days and bad air quality days in Alhambra, see the slideshow attached to this article.

6 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Escaping Alhambra’s air pollution”

  1. Regard jurisdiction, the following excerpt is from the South Coast Air Quality Management District website:
    “SCAQMD is responsible for controlling emissions primarily from stationary sources of air pollution. These can include anything from large power plants and refineries to the corner gas station. There are about 28,400 such businesses operating under SCAQMD permits. Many consumer products are also considered stationary sources; these include house paint, furniture varnish, and thousands of products containing solvents that evaporate into the air. About 25% of this area’s ozone-forming air pollution comes from stationary sources, both businesses and residences. The other 75% comes from mobile sources–mainly cars, trucks and buses, but also construction equipment, ships, trains and airplanes. Emission standards for mobile sources are established by state or federal agencies, such as the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rather than by local agencies such as the SCAQMD.”

  2. Hmmm, since Alhambra is a toxic place to live and you plan on leaving because of the toxicity, is not safe to assume you have found a non-toxic place to live?

    Where is that?

    1. I have moved along the coast, north of San Diego. There are still ozone issues here (about 3x as good as LA), but the particle pollution is passes the EPA standards.

  3. What exactly do you propose that Alhambra should do as a city to make any kind of dent in an LA County/CA problem? If you made suggestions, I apologize if I missed them.

    1. Good question. First of all, nothing can happen if they do not understand and recognize the scope of the problem and public health hazard it is. The article was meant to arm you with facts and data so that you can either express that it is something you care about to city council and you can make it something that you can vote on. With three new positions opened this fall, consider making it an issue that the candidates need to address.

      With regards to specific solutions, first, the city should declare that it is a problem and set goals to address it. Those goals can be aligned with the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA), an alliance of cities that aims to reduce greenhouse gases 80-100% by 2050. At least then a framework exists to bend towards. In fact the CNCA provides templates that cities can follow based on what has worked and what has not worked for them. The city manager could get in touch with them and figure out where to start.

      2) Make a public effort to coordinate with 5-10 of the neighboring cities (or neighboring counties) to make similar commitments and strategize together, come up with solutions together.
      3) Make a contingency to all new constructions in Alhambra that they need to install renewables (eg: solar on the roof), and that there is some effort to off-set the carbon footprint of the construction process itself. Make being green a part of doing business in Alhambra.
      4) Have the City Manager give a “green budget” in parallel to any “normal” project budget, that considers the cost and impact of what it would take to do the same project as a green initiative (so you can make choices based on knowledge, and always have a more green choice that you can decide to accept or reject).
      5) Look into potential technologies that can scrub particulate matter locally, maybe Alhambra could be a test site for new tech?
      6) Data collect: reach out to http://www.aqmd.gov/, to set up Ozone and PM2.5 (at a minimum) recording stations specifically for Alhambra, so you have reliable data for Alhambra.

      That’s just a start of ideas. I am sure there are many others. Step one is acknowledging the problem and setting goals to stop adding to the problem. Nothing really matters until that step happens.

    2. Michael Lawrence

      David, A starter would be for the council to have independent consultants who assess the large developments that they vote on and not use the ones selected by the developers. All too often the environmental regulations that the State of California impose on guarding air quality are ignored or bypassed by council that has accepted large donations from the developer. This was most recently done in the Lowe’s development where the developer fudged the traffic report and violated California Environmental Quality Act laws. The city engineer rubber stamped the traffic report rather than do a proper analysis. The current council voted unanimously to approve despite the evidence presented to them in the hearings of bad traffic analysis. Voting for new council that is not part of the old system of pay-to-play is a good start to doing our part to improve the air quality here in Alhambra.

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