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By David Danelski, firstname.lastname@example.org
Breathing smog kills about 1,341 in greater L.A. each year; ports are biggest fixed sources of pollution, research shows.
As Southern California continues to struggle through this summer’s unrelenting smog, a study released Wednesday gives a stark reminder of why air quality matters.
Researchers believe hundreds of people die each year because of Southern California’s poor air quality. Pollution levels routinely exceed the levels deemed safe by health professionals.
In the report, the Long Beach and South Bay areas are included in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale category, where about 1,341 people are estimated to die each year because of bad air.
That makes the L.A. area’s air quality the deadliest in the nation.
The Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metropolitan area was second worst, with about 808 people estimated to die annually because of air pollution.
Nationally, the deaths were estimated at 9,320 a year, which is comparable to the number of lives lost annually to drunken driving.
The study was conducted by the American Thoracic Society, a group of health care professionals that focuses on understanding pulmonary diseases, critical illnesses and sleeprelated breathing disorders, and New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management.
In the Los Angeles area defined in the report, the biggest fixed sources of pollution are the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to air-quality regulators. At these hubs, hundreds of tons of diesel emission pour annually from ships, big rigs and freight-moving equipment such as cranes.
However, both ports have spent millions shoring up the air-pollution-cutting efforts and, in the past decade, have cut diesel particulate matter linked to respiratory ailments by 85 percent.
“We have come a long way, and we recognize there is more work to do,” said Port of Los Angeles spokesman Phil Sanfield.
Some critics say the ports can do more to curb pollution from trucks, vessels and cargo equipment. David Pettit, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, which sued the Port of Los Angeles in 2001 on behalf of community members to bring clean-air measures to a project, said the number of deaths brings home the real public cost.
“It shouldn’t have gotten this way in the first place,” he said, adding that he hopes the report serves as a wakeup call.
The study’s lead author, Kevin Cromer, a professor at the NYU institute, said by telephone that he hopes the results will raise public awareness and better inform policymakers.
“We are just providing previously unavailable information that can help airquality managers and cities make more meaningful decisions,” said Cromer, who has expertise in population health and environmental medicine.
The study was based on air pollution data for both fine particle and ozone levels in U.S. metropolitan areas recorded in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The numbers of deaths and illnesses were then estimated through computer analysis that took into account epidemiological studies linking various health effects to air pollution exposure.
The researchers noted that they believe their results are conservative. They did not count deaths from cancers that take decades to develop or deaths from the exacerbation of other chronic illnesses such as diabetes.
Cromer and his colleagues also created a website, www. HealthoftheAir.org, that allows users to input ZIP codes to learn the estimated numbers of deaths and illness in regions throughout the nation.
Dr. Ahmet Baydur, a pulmonary expert and professor of clinical medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, said the people most at risk are those whose lungs already are damaged by smoking and people with emphysema, chronic bronchitis and severe asthma.
Of particular concern are people who need to treat themselves with oxygen from portable oxygen tanks, he said.
Air pollution causes inflammation that creates mucus and swelling that blocks internal air passageways, he said. Inflammation from air pollution also can trigger heart attacks, Baydur said.
In addition to deaths, the study estimated the number of acute illnesses attributable to air pollution. This was done by tallying the expected number of heart attacks, cardiac and respiratory hospitalizations, and emergency room visits.
In the Riverside-San Bernardino- Ontario area, these illnesses were estimated at 1,416 a year, while the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale area had an estimated 3,255 such illnesses.
The study further estimated the number of times people called in sick, missed school or otherwise had to curtail their activities because of air pollution. In the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale area, this number was about 2.9 million, while the Inland area had 1.3 million such days.
The study was released as Southern California’s ocean-to-mountains air basin is weathering a tough smog season. As of Monday, the region had exceeded the federal health standard for lung-irritating ozone during at least 90 days.
That’s 24 more unhealthful days than last year, with the worst pollution in the Crestline, Redlands and San Bernardino areas.
Baydur said research has shown the cost of reducing air pollution is much less than the cost for health care and lost productivity associated with bad air.
He is a member of the American Thoracic Society, which recommends a more protective ozone standard of 60 parts per billion.
“Anything we can do to reduce particle and gaseous air pollutants will be extremely helpful in the long run,” Baydur said. “An estimated 9,000 deaths a year is quite significant.”
Officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District welcomed the study.
“Studies such as this one help illustrate the important public health impacts of air pollution,” said Jo Kay Ghosh, the air district’s health effects officer.
“The good news is that air pollution levels are going down here in Southern California, but we clearly need to continue our efforts to adopt policies and programs that will help us to achieve clean air here in the reg ion,” Ghosh said in a statement.
Staff writer Rachel Uranga contributed to this report.
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