Even when the air is dry and the sky is cloudless, smog looms over Los Angeles like a rust-brown curtain. The mountains in the distance look to be lost in a fog even on the brightest days, and the long boulevards that run all the way to the see disappear just before they reach the horizon.
Like Beijing or Mexico City, the smog sticks to Los Angeles because of inversion, an atmospheric pattern that keeps the pollution from escaping. But while L.A. is the unfortunate poster child for smog in the U.S., it’s a problem that effects the entire state of California, and for nearly 50 years, it has been a national leader on environmental law.
There are many factors that contribute to smog, but vehicles are the biggest offenders. Ozone mixes with particulates from factories, power plants, and millions of cars and trucks to create the toxic clouds, which turn that sickening rust color when exposed to sunlight and nitrogen. The result is a cocktail of chemicals that have proven to be deadly.
Particulates like diesel dust, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide can inflame the respiratory system, which can lead to permanently damaged lungs. Between 2005 and 2007 alone, smog-related aliments led to 30,000 emergency room visits in California, costing the state $193 million in medical care costs. It is estimated that as many as 9,600 people die every year from complications of respiratory ailments, most of it due to prolonged exposure to smog.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, more than 131 million Americans live in areas with unhealthy air. Over 25 million people suffer from asthma in the U.S., and it is estimated that more than 30% of childhood asthma is brought on by air-quality issues. These numbers are appalling, but luckily, they’re getting better.
In 2014, Los Angeles had 94 “smog days,” or days where pollutants in the air were above federal regulation standards. This is a dramatic improvement from the late 1970s, when the city experienced more than 200 smog days. It’s far from perfect — or even acceptable — but it’s proof that California’s environmental laws are working, and there could even be a day where the bad-air days are a thing of the past.
The first recorded incidents of smog occurred in the early 1940s. By 1943, the phenomenon had gotten so bad that people feared the strange brown clouds were part of a Japanese chemical weapons attack. In 1967, the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, was established to regulate automotive pollution in the state.
Created before the Clean Air Act was expanded, CARB is the only state-level environmental organization in the country, and for nearly 50 years it has led the charge against pollution. By 1975, CARB had led the charge in standardizing the catalytic converter and supported the nationwide switch to unleaded gasoline.
Today, California’s aggressive regulation of automotive emissions are among the strictest and progressive in the country. Its methods have proven results, but its means haven’t always been exactly popular.
In 1984, California’s Smog Check Program went into effect. Every two years, owners of cars built after 1976 must be tested for harmful emissions that contribute to smog. Every car that fits these guidelines — regulations for diesel trucks are slightly different — must pass the test in order to be registered by the state.
If the car doesn’t pass, the owner needs to make all the proper repairs and have the car retested. This can be easier said than done, as it usually requires costly work on the engine and exhaust systems. Despite the state’s Consumer Assistance Program that offers a buyback program for cars that are worth less than the projected repair bills, the out-of-pocket cost of confirming to the strict standards has rankled many drivers, and protests against CARB aren’t uncommon.
It’s easy to look at CARB as a bureaucratic bad guy, since it has a say in everything from bug spray to gas cans to the amount of sulfur in diesel fuel. But it also offers a number of incentives to individuals and businesses to help reduce air pollution. from a progressive tax rebate of up to $2,500 and access to carpool lanes on the freeways to awarding grants to funding the construction of hydrogen stations. More importantly, its pioneering programs have gotten results.
In 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study that showed certain levels of car-specific pollutants had dropped off 98% in Los Angeles since the 1960s, even though drivers use three times as much fuel today. The smog test failure rate for cars built after 1995 has dropped nearly 30%, and a recent study by the University of Southern California found a direct link between a decline in children’s respiratory issues and the improving air quality.
Despite these successes, there’s still a long way to go. The increasing acceptance and popularity of hybrids and electric vehicles have been a factor in reducing vehicle emissions, and the disappearance of less-efficient older vehicles will only help to reduce emissions even more. California’s air quality still ranks among the lowest in the country, but a cleaner future may be just over the hazy horizon.