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High ozone levels endanger our valley

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: July 9, 2008 9:41 p.m.
Updated: September 10, 2008 5:03 a.m.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency's "Air Now" interactive Web site, Santa Clarita once again has some of the worst air pollution in the nation this month.

No, we do not beat Northern California, which right now is shrouded in a brown cloak of ash and haze from its out-of-control wildfires, but we are right up there with Riverside for ozone levels.

Could you feel it last Thursday? It reached 179 on the Air Quality Index, with 150 being very unhealthful. With my asthma, I was breathing hard just walking a block to the farmer's market in Newhall.

Ozone is an extremely reactive gas composed of three oxygen molecules and is the primary ingredient in smog. It is formed by chemical reactions in the atmosphere from two gases that do come out of tailpipes and smokestacks, among other sources.

The raw ingredients for ozone are nitrogen oxides (NOx) and hydrocarbons, also called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They are produced primarily when fossil fuels like gasoline, oil or coal are burned.
When these two gases come into contact with both heat and sunlight, they combine to form ozone smog.

You can see why our valley is the perfect producer of this deadly pollution. We certainly have plenty of heat, sunlight and tailpipe pollution here from two freeways and surface traffic.

Ozone harms our lungs by chemically reacting with lung tissue.

Los Angeles used to have air quality alerts that reduced outdoor activity for children. But now the soccer games and other sports seem to continue right through the highest ozone levels in the afternoon.

Many moms have mentioned this fact to me while shaking their heads with concern. What happened to these alerts that protected our children's health?

A recent study cited by the American Lung Association (see the Web site at suggests that year-round exposure to ozone may be associated with an increased risk of asthma.

Researchers tracking 3,500 students in Southern California found an increased onset of asthma in children who were taking part in three or more outdoor activities in communities with high levels of ozone.

Scientists following Yale University students determined that living just four years in a region with high levels of ozone and related co-pollutants, such as those that occur in our valley, coincided with diminished lung function and frequent reports of respiratory symptoms.

A much larger study of 3,300 school children in Southern California found reduced lung function in girls with asthma and boys who spent more time outdoors in areas with high levels of ozone.

But ozone isn't our only pollution problem. The Santa Clarita Valley also exceeds federal health standards for particulate pollution.

Because of all the grading from construction activities and the two freeways that run through our valley, we also often exceed health limits for particulate matter. These tiny particles of dirt and soot can lodge in the alveoli of the lungs and cause permanent damage.

Another finding from the Southern California Children's Health study cited by the American Lung Association looked at the long-term effects of particle pollution on teenagers.

Tracking 1,759 children between ages 10 and 18, researchers found that those who grew up in more polluted areas face the increased risk of having underdeveloped lungs, which may never recover to their full capacity.

The average drop in lung function was 20 percent below what was expected for the child's age, similar to the impact of growing up in a home with parents who smoked.

Air pollution has always been a big issue for SCOPE members.

From objecting to the siting of new elementary schools near freeways or highways, to our concern about continued housing approvals in outlying areas that lack public transportation, and even making air pollution the subject of our Fourth of July float, we have tried to bring this community's attention to the severity of and solutions to air pollution in the Santa Clarita Valley.

So what can we do about all of this? We can realize that not driving our cars will have more benefit than just reducing the strain on our pocketbook caused by rising gas prices. It will help our children's health, as well.

Taking the train to work, car pooling with a friend or buying that new electric "golf cart" to do our local shopping will be a big benefit to our children's and our own health.

On high-ozone days, we can also make simple changes like filling up the gas tank in the cooler morning or evening hours to reduce the evaporation of ozone-producing gases.

We can reduce our electrical use (i.e., "Turn off the lights when you leave the bathroom!" as my conservative father used to always shout at us).

But most of all, we urge local schools and sports organizations to monitor the EPA's Air Now Web site and curtail youth sports activities on days when air pollution levels reach the "unhealthful" level for children.

As wonderful as team sports are for developing character in our children, these events are not worth permanently damaging their lungs and their health.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE). Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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