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Air Pollution in the Los Angeles Basin

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Budget Travel Magazine recently conducted a survey to identify the top ten most popular travel destinations in the world. Amongst cities including Paris, Rome, and Tokyo stands Los Angeles at number six. Surprising? To locals maybe, but a majority of the world views Los Angeles as a glamorous city; home to Hollywood, celebrities, and, of course, Disneyland. Travelers are taken aback when they become aware of the severe levels of air pollution in the atmosphere of the Los Angeles Basin. Throughout the twentieth century and into present day, the Los Angeles Basin, the area containing the city of Los Angeles as well as its neighboring suburbs, has developed one of the worst cases of air pollution in the world. Society has developed an intense reliance on the burning of fossil fuels, resulting in a thick accumulation of chemicals from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In order to reduce pollutant build up and restore the atmosphere, the population of Los Angeles must decrease its need for and use of fossil fuels by converting to renewable energy sources, following strict legislation regarding emission control, and altering personal habits to lead a “greener” lifestyle.

Before Los Angeles (LA) was an American city, the area was under Spanish and Mexican rule for a long period of time. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese-born explorer, claimed the area of southern California for the Spanish Empire in 1542. The Mexican people achieved independence from the Spanish Empire in 1821. However, Mexican rule quickly ended due to the Mexican–American War in 1846 (“The Early Settlement of Los Angeles,” n.d.). Once apart of the United States, LA began to transform into what it is today. The construction of railroads across the country made LA more accessible and started an increase in population. The discovery of oil also prompted a growth in population. By the early 20th century, LA became a center of oil production. This served as a catalyst to the start of urbanization and industrialization of the west coast. Today, the city of LA is home to almost four million people (“State and County Quickfacts,” 2011), making LA the second largest population center in the United States.

The entire LA basin, however, is about 17,500 km2 with a total population of 16 million (Chow, 2004). LA’s large population size is an important component regarding the area’s heavy air pollution. There are many reasons why LA has such a high population. LA County is a central location for many big businesses and corporations. Resulting in a large need for businessmen and businesswomen. Hollywood, beaches, museums, amusement parks, and other attractions make for one of the biggest tourist industries in the country. The tourism industry supplies an abundance of jobs, and is therefore a reason people live in the area. Not to mention the enjoyable Mediterranean climate and prime location are major incentives for people to live in the LA area. On the other hand, the geography and climate of LA are also a contributing factors as to why LA’s air is so polluted. According to the article “Los Angeles; Traffic and Smog”, the surrounding mountains, subsidence inversions, and high solar intensity produce ideal conditions for the atmospheric stagnation conductive to pollutant reaction and buildup in LA.

Also, “the air circulation pattern allows air pollutants to build up in the air shed until the passage of a new weather front” (Chow, 1996), allowing pollutants to linger above the basin for long periods of time. In order to address the problem of pollutant buildup, one must know where the pollutants are coming from. There are a number of sources, both point and non-point, of pollutants in LA. Coal-fired power plants and motor vehicles spew out most of the nation’s nitrogen oxide (Bęś, Rogalski, & Warmiński, 2008). In LA, cars and other motor vehicles are the primary source of the city’s infamous smog-primarily ozone. In fact, seventy-six percent of the total air pollution is attributable to mobile sources (“Los Angeles; Traffic and Smog,” 1994). Motor vehicles produce pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which are of much concern to automobile engineers (Pearson, 2001). Another prominent source of pollutants is jet engine exhausts. This supplies for twelve percent of air toxins (Cass, Hannigan, & Harley, 1992).

These pollutants are harmful to the human body and dramatically decrease the level of air quality. Growth and change in technology has resulted in an increase in the level of air toxins. Since the Industrial revolution, humans have been adding green house gases in excessive amounts to the atmosphere. Throughout the twentieth century, society has become more dependent on new types of machinery causing an increase in the burning of fossil fuels. This dependence has continued into the present day. The U.S. increased its ammonia emissions by twenty-seven percent from 1970 to 2005, according to a 2009 paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (“Los Angeles; Traffic and Smog,” 1994). But why should we be concerned with the increase in gases and air toxins? These gases increase the greenhouse effect, resulting in the phenomenon known as “global warming.” The increase in greenhouse gases has the potential to cause catastrophic problems for Earth and the lives on it (Lovgren, 2004). There is an endless list of both minor and extremely serious health effects of air toxins. Unfortunately, children are especially vulnerable due to increased susceptibility as their lungs develop and their bodies grow. Pearson (2001) states in his book “chemical attack of lung tissue can permanently impair tissue,” resulting in chemical bronchitis and an increase in asthma cases.

Already the prevalence of reported asthma, especially among children, has risen dramatically in the United States over the past 20 years (“Pollution in Los Angeles County,” n.d.). In the 2012 Environmental Health Legislation, authors Farquhar and Noble identify air toxins as significant contributors to health problems such as headaches, throat irritation, heavy metal poisoning, brain and kidney damage, and even cancer. If patters of increasing greenhouse gases continue, these health conditions will worsen and result in more terminal diagnoses. Smog and haze are also serious effects produced from greenhouse gas emissions. The geography of the LA Basin allows for smog and haze to remain in the atmosphere of the city. The think layer of smog and haze creates visibility impairments throughout the city. This is easily recognized by anyone who visits or resides in LA. Combustion related particles are to blame for the degradation in visibility (Chow, 2004). Also, “smog was attributed to the deaths of 50% of trees in nearby areas,” (Su, 2002). Trees are needed in order to reduce levels of CO2 in the air. If smog continues to kill trees, the amount of air toxins will rapidly increase even more.

Smog also deforms and ruins parts of the city people worked so hard to build. Sulfur dioxide, found in smog, corrodes metal and stone, damaging machinery and industrial instruments. Changes in ground-level ozone will also destroy synthetic materials. For example, leather will become brittle and rubber will lose its elasticity, resulting in cracks on buildings and statues (Farquhar & Noble, 2012). The presence of smog and haze creates an environment suitable for problems such as acid rain. Acid rain is a very serious effect of air pollutants and is becoming of more concern for citizens in the LA area. Acid rain is a broad term referring to a mixture of wet and dry deposition from the atmosphere containing higher than normal amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids (Pearson, 2001). Acid rain is harmful to plants and trees and causes water pollution, which threatens the lives in water (Kuo-Jen et al., 2010).

In addition, acid rain will accelerate the decay of building materials and paints, including irreplaceable buildings, statues, and sculptures that are part of LA’s cultural heritage. On a larger scale, changes in atmosphere composition are contributing to ozone depletion and global climate change. Ozone in the stratosphere protects us from dangerous UV radiation, but ozone close to the Earth is toxic to both animals and plants (Polvani, Waugh, Correa, & Seok-Woo, 2011). People exposed to ozone develop respiratory symptoms resulting in lose of some lung function. As air levels worsen, ozone will become more abundant in the air we breathe. It is shown that areas of ozone depletion are now roughly two to three times larger than past measurements (Polvani et al., 2011). Holes in the ozone layer will continue to expand with the buildup of air pollutants and will ultimately trigger an increase in global climate change.

Los Angeles has one of the worst reputations for air pollution, but how does it compare to other cities in the Unites States? There is a prominent correlation between highly populated areas and high air pollution levels. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, immigration in America was extremely high. Immigrants came looking for cheap housing and a job. Most found work in highly industrious areas like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. With an abundance of cheap labor, industries grew and multiplied populating the cities where they were located. Today, unsurprisingly, the cities with the highest populations have the most concerning problems of air pollution. The most populated cities, in ascending order, are New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, and Philadelphia (“Most Populated Cities in US,” 2011). However, LA has the most serious ozone problem in the United States (“Los Angeles; Traffic and Smog,” 1994). Many would assume New York City to have the worst air pollution levels, but the colder climate and northern geographic location help to clear out smog and rid the area of lingering pollutants.

Although cities like Chicago and Houston have a higher level of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, researchers conclude the high level of ozone makes LA the city with the worst overall air pollution report in the USA (Kuo-Jen et al., 2010). If LA has the worst air pollution in the USA, how does it compare to other cities around the world? Same as in the US, cities with the highest populations tend to have higher levels of chemicals and greenhouse gases in the air. Chow (2004) uses the term “megacities” as a classification for cities with extremely large populations and correspondingly high pollution levels. LA is classified as a “megacity” but is ranked twelfth after cities like Tokyo, Mexico City, Mumbai, and Shanghai. The article “Los Angeles; Traffic and Smog” (1994) declares Mexico City to be the only city with higher ozone levels than LA. Also, urban European cities experience a greater number of problems with nitrogen oxide, which intensify as you move south. Athens is a main concern in this area (Pearson, 2001).

After completion of full air pollution reports, LA’s air composition is better than that of eight other “megacities.” Delhi, India comes in first followed by Kolkata, India and Jakarta, Indonesia (Chow, 2004). Although many interest groups and people are concerned with the air pollution in LA, the plethora of challenges for improving air quality makes it difficult to take effective action. As made evident in cities around the world, the common factor for places with high pollution is high population. This cites a major challenge for reducing air pollution since LA’s population continues to expand. LA has experienced an eleven percent increase in population since 1990 and a five percent increase since 2000 (“Los Angeles Population Growth Statistics,” 2012). If this pattern persists, decreasing the population in LA will not be an adequate solution to fix air quality. Another challenge for reducing air pollution in LA is the lack of public transportation made available to citizens. Los Angeles developed with almost no public transportation network. Consequently, the residents must rely on personal motor vehicles for almost all transportation (“Los Angeles; Traffic and Smog,” 1994).

The human to vehicle ratio is over one to one, which is extremely high compared to other places. A majority of chemicals in the LA air are released from motor vehicles as a result. Little usage of public transportation is a key reason why LA’s air pollution is worse than other cities with a similar population. The creation of a new, efficient public transportation network would reduce the need for personal motor vehicles and therefore decrease air pollution. In order to effectively improve air quality, government action would be needed. There have been past attempts to by both national and local governments to regulate this crisis. The formation of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) in the early 1970’s sought to create air pollution controls. After developing a consistent set of regulations for the four-county area, SCAQMD adopted several significant emission-reductions measures, including rules to control man-made dust and reduce nitrogen oxides from power plants by 90% (“Fiftieth Anniversary of Smog War,” 1997). SCAQMD now monitors air quality at thirty-seven stations distributed throughout the basin (Chow, 2004).

The Clean Air Act of 1990 is another government attempt to reduce air pollution. The emission controls of the three-tier plan represent the most severe air quality management requirements ever proposed for any city (“Los Angeles; Traffic and Smog,” 1994). The law encourages the use of market-based principles and other innovative approaches, and provides a framework from which alternative clean fuels will be used. The law promotes the use of clean low sulfur coal and natural gas. In addition, an acid rain program that gives utilities flexibility to obtain needed emission reductions was created to encourage customers to conserve energy (“Clean Air Act Amendment,” 1990). Overall, the law has caused a decline in ambient concentrations of particulate matter. However, many question its effectiveness since there have been only minimal changes in LA’s air composition after twenty years of its implementation. With stronger enforcement of The Clean Air Act of 1990 and efforts by the SCAQMD, the LA Basin will have a cleaner and clearer future.

Development of renewable energy sources and cleaner technology will also contribute to a promising future for LA air quality. Over the past decade or so, technology for the utilization of renewable resources has been materialized and put to use around the world. Southern California alone has dozens of projects in production (“Renewable Energy,” 2009). The landscape and location of Southern California create an ideal environment for solar and wind farms. Nearby deserts provide flat land and high-intensity sunrays perfect for solar panel technology, while coastal winds can be captured and converted to energy by wind turbines. The growing popularity of hybrid and low-emission vehicles will also help to reduce chemicals in the atmosphere.

Recent productions of different hybrid and low-emission vehicle models, like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, are making these types of vehicles more tangible and appealing to the public. Also, the SCAQMD is co-sharing the project cost with a number of industries to develop a way to use “H2 instead of gasoline, as well as compare different fueling strategies and H2 production methods” (Chow, 2004). With the use of renewables the SCAQMD intends to “advance the technology, improve competition, gain experience, and, therefore, reduce the costs to accelerate commercialization” (Chow, 2004). These exciting advancements in the technology and use of renewable resources provide an approach to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and lessen the amount of greenhouse gases being released into the air.

Along with the use of modern technologies, passage of stricter legislation concerning emissions into the environment will help boost the air quality in LA. Economic instruments such as emission taxes and emission trading “will utilize the power of the market to encourage use of cleaner technology and fuels” (Kuo-Jen et al., 2010). A market-based system will produce methods to reduce greenhouse emissions through use of the “polluter pays” concept (Chow, 2004). Constructing legislation of this kind will force citizens and corporations to cooperate and contribute in the effort to revitalize the atmosphere of the LA Basin.

Los Angeles plays host to millions of tourist year round coming to visit famous LA attractions, get a taste of Hollywood glamour, or to see the beauty of California. Travelers can find these experiences, however, few anticipate the reality of extremely poor air quality conditions. When in fact, LA has the worst air pollution reports of any city in the country. If citizens cooperate with government policies and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the Los Angeles Basin will diminish overtime. Once and for all, lifting the veil of smog to uncover the beauty of Los Angeles tourists expect and citizens can be proud of.


Bęś, A., Rogalski, L., & Warmiński, K.. (2008). Carbon Dioxide Emission to the Atmosphere from Overburden under Controlled Temperature Conditions. Polish Journal of Environmental Studies; 2008, Vol. 17 Issue 3, 427-432, 6p. Cass, G. R., Hannigan, M. P., & Harley, R. A. (1992). Speciation of organic gas emissions and the detection of excess unburned gasoline in the atmosphere. Environmental Science & Technology, 26(12), 2395-2395. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/14304467?accountid=1452 Chow, J. C. (2004). Introduction to the A&WMA 2004 Critical Review Megacities and Atmospheric Pollution. Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 54, 642-643. doi: 10.1080/10473289.2004.10470940 Chung, K., Zhang, J., & Zhong, N. (2011). Outdoor air pollution and respiratory health in Asia. Respirology, 16(7), 1023-1026. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1843.2011.02034.x Clean Air Act Amendments. (1990). Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/air/caa/overview.txt Early Settlement of Los Angeles. (n.d.). Los Angeles: Past, Present, and Future. Retrieved from http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/la/historic/la_settlement.html Farquhar, D., & Noble, A. A. (2012). 2012 Environmental Health Legislation. Journal Of Environmental Health, 75(3), 42-45. Fiftieth Anniversary of Smog War. (1997). The Southland’s War on Smog: 
Fifty Years of Progress Toward Clean Air. Retrieved from http://www.aqmd.gov/news1/Archives/History/marchcov.html#The%20Arrival%20of%20Air%20Pollution Kuo-Jen, L., Tagaris, E., Russell, A. G., Praveen, A., Shan, H., Kasemsan, M., & Jung-Hun, W. (2010). Cost Analysis of Impacts of Climate Change on Regional Air Quality. Journal Of The Air & Waste Management Association, 60(2), 195-203. DOI:10.3155/1047-3289.60.2.195

Los Angeles: Traffic and Smog. (1994). Environment, 36(2), 12. Lovgren, Stephan. (2004) Warming to Cause Catastrophic Rise in Sea Level? National Geographic. 214(3), 74-75. Most Populated Cities in US. (2011). Explordia. Retrieved from http://exploredia.com/most-populated-cities-in-us-2011/ Pearson K., John. (2001). Improving Air Quality: Progress and Challenges for the Automobile Industry. Warrendale, Pennsylvania: Society of Automobile Engineers, Inc.. Polvani, L. M., Waugh, D. W., Correa, G. P., & Seok-Woo, S. (2011). Stratospheric Ozone Depletion: The Main Driver of Twentieth-Century Atmospheric Circulation Changes in the Southern
Hemisphere. Journal Of Climate, 24(3), 795-812. doi:10.1175/2010JCLI3772.1 Pollution in Los Angeles County. (n.d.). Rabbit Air. Retrieved from http://www.rabbitair.com/pollution-in-los-angeles-county.aspx Renewable Energy. (2009). Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning. Retrieved from http://planning.lacounty.gov/energy States and County Quickfacts. (2011). The United States Census. Retrieved from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06/06037.html Su, Felicia. (2002). All That Smog. University of California at Berkeley Environmental Economics & Policy 101. Retrieved from http://are.berkeley.edu/courses/EEP101/spring03/AllThatSmog/extern.html

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