by Lori Waters
photography by Jessica Valerio
La Verne was once known for its famous oranges, open foothills and village lifestyle; now, there is trouble in paradise, and the smog-ingested air quality is partly the culprit. With the 210 Freeway freeway slicing through its heart, La Verne has cars and truck exhaust brought right to its core. Prevailing southwest winds do the rest, daily blowing more air pollution into the already hazy La Verne sky.
But despite the doom and gloom in the sky and that sinking feeling when you cannot quite catch your breath on a dirty air day, the experts say it is getting better. Air quality in La Verne might be slowly returning to a closer reflection of what it once was.
Michael Agnew, a 38-year veteran of the Southern California Air Quality Management Department, the chief agency engaged in the fight against air pollution, believes that the air quality has greatly improved, but more work needs to be done. “About 40 years ago, the ozone in air mass was so high that taking a deep breath felt as if an elephant was perched on your chest; your eyes watered as if you had just lost a loved one, and any exercise was out of the question.” Agnew says that those days are gone, “The air quality in the La Verne area, and most other areas in the South Coast Air Quality Management District, has steadily gotten cleaner over the last 25 plus years. The average Values of the gases criteria pollutants that are measured in the SCAQMD basin have steadily declined.” But with the steady population growth in the Los Angeles basin, and a general lack of city planning, a lack of infrastructure for moving people from point-to-point and a lack of fossil fuel use, the problem remains. Despite stringent testing rules, many cars that do not comply with California emission regulations. Public transportation and service trains, despite their mission of consolidating commuters, also compound the situation, producing up to 36 tons per day of smog-forming emissions. At the ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles, hundreds of uncontrolled diesel dock equipment and ships pollute the air, hitting the charts as two of the largest sources of pollution in Southern California. Particles are shot into the air and some fall into the ocean, polluting the water and killing marine life. And the worst of all, service trucks, sucking down diesel fuel, account for 80 percent of Southern California’s air-quality debacle.
Paul Alvarez, clinical supervisor for the athletic training program at the University of La Verne, and a father of two boys, proclaims that air quality remains a big concern for him. Southern California is a car-driven society, especially in La Verne and Claremont, with many college students commuting in and out of the two cities. He says there is not just one solution to this problem. “If one person strives to clean up the air, then they are going to set the example.”
Air quality in La Verne, while it is improving, still affects everyone. Children who suffer from existing ailments such as asthma and chronic pulmonary lung disease are considered to be the most susceptible. Throughout Southern California, children who live in high-ozone communities have an increased risk of developing asthma. Short-term lung exposures to the ozone can result in breathing pattern changes. Industrial pollutants give all an increased chance of developing asthma. “There isn’t one particular group that these respiratory problems target; kids and adults can both be easily affected,” says Brian Tessier, ULV Physician Assistant.
La Verne’s ozone contains lead, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and sulfate. Inside those components lay nasty little particles that invade our bodies and create infections, and it does not stop in the lungs. Adults with diseases involving the heart and blood vessels, and patients with chronic hypoxemia, are at high risk for health problems due to the smog. Nitrogen dioxide is also one of the particles floating about the air. Studies show that long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide causes acute respiratory illness.
Lead, which is also part of our ozone, raises concern as well. Fetuses, infants and children are more sensitive to lead exposure. Lead affects the development of the central nervous system, leading to learning disorders, distractibility and inability to comprehend and lower intelligence levels. Lead poisoning can lead to anemia, lethargy, seizures and death. Although lead is very dangerous, it does not affect the respiratory system.
The time of year or season also contributes greatly to the effects of air quality. Tessier says he sees fewer cases in the fall and more in the spring due to the increase in pollen. From his athletic training program view, Alvarez notices a vast difference between fall and spring sports. “Air quality is much better in spring for athletes due to the air movement and offshore flow,” he says. “In the fall, the atmosphere is very hot, and there is a lot of dry air.”
Air quality not only affects Southern Californians but also its botanical buddies as well. Agriculture still is a part of La Verne with small orange groves and strawberry fields present within the city’s borders. “In the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s, crops were damaged by air pollution; the major crop-damaging component was ozone. Ozone concentrations have declined to a level that is now non-injurious to plant tissue in the District,” says Agnew.
The efforts of commuters and the government seem to be at least slightly helping the problem. Although the buses and trains that transport carpool and rideshare participants emit harmful toxins, riding Metrolink trains can cut down tremendously on air pollution and traffic on California freeways. Thousands of Californians take advantage of these programs everyday. Metrolink, Amtrak and Freight trains are more fuel-efficient than one person in a car or a truck hauling a fraction of a boxcar’s tonnage. In addition, a few notoriously gross polluting garbage trucks are being converted to CNG fuels. And the MTA has converted more than 60 percent of its bus fleet and is on its way to finishing the job this decade.
As for the leader of the air quality demons, service trucks, Agnew suggests an alternative. “Piggy-back, or uni-trains are an excellent way of moving large tonnage rather than the bumper-to-bumper heavy truck traffic on our local freeways,” he says.
“Everyone can help in the battle to reduce air pollution by reducing the use of their cars by carpooling, using rapid transit, telecommuting, planning their daily activities to be fuel efficient, or just playing hooky on days when the air stagnation is at its worst. Stay home in your garden; loaf around the house or by the pool on those days. Cutting your electrical usage on the worst days will also help, unless you are medically required to stay inside and cool by your doctor,” Agnew says.
But, yet, the problem of air quality continues to exhaust Southern Californians. The San Gabriel Mountains, three miles to the north, remain hidden to La Verne residents on certain days. In a society as individualistic as Southern California, commuters refuse to give up their cars and, even worse, refuse to carpool. Traffic continues to clog the arteries of the freeway system, frustrating 9-to-5ers who refuse to do anything but grimace and bear it. Mass transportation, while available, is not as complete or networked as other top American metropolises: Chicago and New York. But as improvements are made, people are beginning to notice that the air is improving. It will continue to do so, one person at a time, one particle at a time.