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San Diegans Urged to Clear the Air

The Environmental Protection Agency projects that San Diego's air pollution will get worse over the next decade and a half, with heavy health consequences. Producer Milan Kovacevic brings us a report

This segment originally aired October 11, 2006

The Environmental Protection Agency projects that San Diego's air pollution will get worse over the next decade and a half, with heavy health consequences. Producer Milan Kovacevic brings us a report on how pollution affects San Diego's future.

Cleaner power plants, cars and fuels have greatly improved San Diego’s air quality since the 1970s and '80s. But air pollution in San Diego is still making people sick and may be hurting kids’ lungs for life.


Jan Cortez, Vice President of Environmental Health, American Lung Association of California : Breathing dirty air affects all of our lungs but the most sensitive populations would be children because their lungs are still developing and senior citizens and those with lung and heart disease. Children are also more susceptible because they play outdoors so they’re spending more time outdoors and they’re running and so they’re breathing in a lot more air than adults who stay indoors most of the day.

A recent study by the University of Southern California shows that the closer kids live to freeways, the higher their risk of asthma. And the Children’s Health Study, a 10-year project funded by the California Air Resources Board, found that heavy air pollution can cause serious and lasting harm to children’s lungs.

Michael Kelly, M.D., Co-chair, San Diego Regional Asthma Coalition : One of the significant findings of the Children’s Health Study was that by the age of 18, children who were exposed to higher levels of air pollution had significantly reduced lung function.

Low lung function in late adulthood increases the risk of heart attack and respiratory disease. Edith Williamson knows that well.

Edith Williamson, Retired School Director: Believe me, I can tell you a good air and a bad air. 

Williamson copes with a respiratory disease called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD.

Williamson: COPD is a deteriorating disease of the lungs. It does not get better but you can live with it. And the air quality is one of the things that plays a big part.

Ten Ways to Clear the Air

  1. Reduce your driving.
  2. Keep your car in good running condition and the tires properly inflated.
  3. Don’t top off your gas tank.
  4. Support the smog check program.
  5. Call 1-800-28-SMOKE to report vehicles with excessive tailpipe emissions.
  6. Around the home, avoid using aerosol spray products.
  7. Use water-based paints and solvents. Keep lids closed and use brushes or rollers rather than sprayers.
  8. Start barbecue briquettes with an electric probe or use a propane barbecue.
  9. Use energy-efficient lighting. Raise your air conditioner’s thermostat and lower your heater’s.
  10. Use a push or electric lawn mower.

Source: County Air Pollution Control District

Air pollution can not only cause heart and lung disease, it can make it harder for people with those diseases to breathe.

Williamson: Our air quality we really take that for granted until you really have to breathe to live is when you really realize, oh, is this good air or is this bad air? 

The American Lung Association ranks San Diego as the 18th most polluted county in the nation for short-term particle pollution. Diesel engines produce much of San Diego’s particle pollution.

Kelly: Diesel emissions are one of the most harmful forms of outdoor air pollution. And one of the more significant forms of air pollution is particulate matter of the fine variety, which gets down deep into the lungs and is more likely to cause not only lung disease, but heart disease.

Ozone, as well as particulate matter, hurts the health of San Diegans. Warm summer air helps create and trap the smog that we see and breathe.

William Brick, Senior Meteorologist, San Diego County Air Pollution Control District: Throughout California we have what’s called a subsidence inversion or inversion aloft that holds in air pollutants closer to the ground. Then when you get to Southern California, where we have the hills in the inland areas, it traps it horizontally too.

The County Air Pollution Control District estimates that mobile sources produce 3/4 of San Diego’s air pollution. Of course bad air doesn’t recognize county lines. San Diego’s smog is made worse by pollution from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. And researchers from UCSD have even seen pollution in San Diego from increasingly industrialized China and Asia.

Dr. Lynn Russell, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: Sometimes, maybe about a third of the time to half the time, we’ll see particles from L.A., pollution, off the coast here in San Diego and occasionally, at higher levels, we also see pollution from Asia and see specific sources of Asian dust as well as combustion associated with Asian industries.

And the air pollution we and others produce is not only unhealthy, it contains greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.

Russell: A lot of the man-made particles and greenhouse gases all come from combustion of fossil fuels. Those are the primary sources. So reducing fossil fuel combustion is going to help reduce global warming in the future as well as improve air quality.

Kelly: One of the greatest global challenges that we’ll face in this century is how we deal with air pollution and it also will give us the greatest opportunity for improvements in public health. 

Brick: As the population increases in San Diego County, and we expect about a million more people in the next 20 years, if everyone’s driving a car and everyone’s using home products that contribute to air pollution, we’re going to have to get that number of emissions down as the population goes up or else the air pollution benefits that we’ve seen over the last few years is going to be reversed and air pollution would actually go up.

Cortez: We’re just going to have to work harder to drive cleaner cars, use cleaner fuels. One of the things that will help is that the government is requiring that ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel be used, and over a 10 to 15 year period, that’s really going to help reduce diesel pollution from trucks.

Brick: I think everyone needs to realize that they’re part of the problem of our air pollution and therefore part of the solution. It’s not them versus us. Whenever you start your car you’re putting out emissions and so you’re putting emissions into the atmosphere that you breathe and your neighbor breathes. And so we really need to work collectively to reduce those emissions and clean the air.