05/07/2009 08:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clearing the Air in LA

Last week's release of the American Lung Association's State of the Air report highlighted how far we still have to go in handling our smog problem. Given that air pollution is one of the longest recognized environmental health hazards--the ancient Greeks fought off miasma from rotting debris--the fact that 186 million people in the US live in communities that received failing grades from the ALA may give you little confidence in the odds for improvement. Furthermore, cities such as Houston, Dallas and Las Vegas, have higher pollutant levels than they did 10 years ago, when the ALA released its first report card, and many cities scored worse than they did last year.

Nonetheless, it's an ill wind that blows no good. While Los Angeles didn't score as well as in 2008, over the last several years it has removed itself from worst place in short-term and long-term particulates (associated with cardiovascular disease), though it still holds first place among cities most polluted by ozone (a trigger for respiratory ailments). And for all its troubles, California possesses a crucial advantage--because the state's air vehicle emissions regulations predate the Federal government's, it is able to initiate stricter regulations than are permissible in other states (if it obtains waivers from the EPA). Established in 1967, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has played a key role in building a market for zero-emissions vehicles and has required lower pollutant levels in vehicle exhaust than mandated by the Federal government. In the Los Angeles region, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) formed in 1976, has led the fight to reduce smog from stationary sources ranging from power plants to household paint.

Polluting cars, trucks and power plants we're familiar with, but pollution from ports is often overlooked. Yet "L.A. gets a huge amount of pollution from international ocean-going vessels," says State of the Air author Janice Nolen. Much higher levels of sulfur are allowed in the diesel that powers ships than is allowed on land--as much as 25,000 to 45,000 parts per million (ppm) versus 15 ppm for trucks and buses. And high sulfur levels result in higher particulate levels. Nolen notes that this isn't just a coastal problem: "Because of Great Lakes trade, this pollution is winding up even in South Dakota and throughout the lower 48 states."

To tackle this problem, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles adopted an ambitious plan to reduce air pollution by 45 percent by 2011. The San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Action Plan (CAAP) includes a number of initiatives, but one vital element has been a voluntary program to encourage ships to switch from dirtier "bunker" diesel to low-sulfur diesel when within 20 to 40 nautical miles of the port of Long Beach. Since July 2008, 17 percent of vessels have signed on and the port is helping cover costs for transitioning to the cleaner diesel. Even better, as of July 1, 2009, CARB regulations will require vessel operators to use low-sulfur diesel when they near the coast. "Cleaner" however is a relative term: These vessels will still be able to burn marine diesel oil with sulfur levels of 5,000 ppm before 2012 and 1,000 ppm afterward.

Wherever you live, odds are your air quality suffers at times. While governmental action is necessary for systematic improvements, it doesn't occur in a vacuum. Nolen recommends these actions:

• Check your air quality; enter your zip code at State of the Air: 2009
• Get involved when your government considers revisions in air quality regulations that require communities to make changes; polluters will be well represented, so citizens need to speak up as well
• Support air-quality measures, such as vehicle exhaust testing
• Advocate for clean air to state and federal representative and urge them to look for alternative energy sources.

Individual actions help as well, so remember to:
• Share rides and reduce your trips
• Talk to kids' schools about no-idling policies and read NRDC's Q&A on "What Parents Need to Know About Diesel School Buses"
• Avoid burning wood, trash or leaves
• Conserve energy to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants.