When Particles Pollute, People Have A Right To Know
Feb. 8, 2005: Santa Ana winds push smoke from Anaheim Hills fire toward LB, observed from Naples/Peninsula area. Digital photo courtesy Bruce Tennant
(February 10, 2006) -- On February 7, 8 and 9, Santa Ana winds sent high levels of particulates from the Anaheim Hills fire over LB. On February 7, ELB had a visible ashfall. The elevated levels of particulates have continued for several days.
So...how high are the actual levels? Were schoolchildren sent outside to exercise in lousy levels of particulates?
LB residents (including parents with kids in schools) and LB school officials don't know for sure...and that's apparently OK with some at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) who persist in defending an antiquated, bureaucratically condescending, user-unfriendly information policy.
AQMD currently provides only "forecasts" of pollution levels accompanied by neutered pollution data "averaged" (smoothed) over 8 hour or 24 hour periods.
This is akin to the weather service reporting on a 110 degree day that the current "average" temperature is only in the 80s.
The public wouldn't accept this for weather and shouldn't accept it for pollution. Forecasts are fine, but AQMD is wrong in demanding that the public accept exposures deemed acceptable by bureaucrats instead of giving the public information and letting parents and principals decide when conditions are sufficiently bad to curtail activities. Consider what happened over the past few days.
Between Feb. 8-9 during the Anaheim Hills fire, AQMD forecast elevated Air Quality Index (AQI) levels (comprised of several pollutants including particulates) of 129 for South Coastal L.A. (includes LB) and 155 for LB-adjacent parts of central OC (read: ELB) on Feb 8 [145 on Feb. 9].
An AQI of 151 is the level declared unhealthy for all persons; AQIs of 101-151 are considered unhealthy for sensitive persons such as those with heart or lung disease -- and we presume children with asthma -- who are advised to "minimize outdoor activity."
AQMD's website presents what it calls "current data" but its publicly displayed pollution numbers are neutered, averaged over time periods ranging from 8 hours to 24 hours. This is done basically because some government agencies have decided it's OK if you or your kids inhale certain pollutant levels over certain time periods. If your child has asthma and is sent to outside to exercise to his/her detriment, that's your problem.
AQMD includes a butt-covering caveat on its website stating, "Localized air quality events, such as wildfires that create smoke, may not be reflected in the data presented." AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood tells LBReport.com, "We recommend that people use AQMD's forecasts."
Well, here's what happens when people do.
LBReport.com has learned that based on AQMD's Feb. 9 recommendations, LBUSD (which was watching for AQMD data due to the fire) concluded at about dawn Feb. 9 that air quality would not be unhealthful for children. LBUSD spokesman Chris Eftychiou says, "When brushfires occur, we're guided by AQMD's directives," adding "they're the clean air agency for the region."
A day earlier (on February 8), AQMD issued a release indicating "[d]ue to the wildfires, smoke has impacted all of Orange County and portions of Los Angeles and Riverside counties. Concentrations of fine particulates are expected to reach the unhealthy level in these areas." The release forecast AQIs of 129 for South Coastal LA (LB) and 155 for LB-adjacent areas of central OC [ELB].
On February 9, AQMD forecast an AQI of 129 for LB and 145 for LB-adjacent OC [read: ELB].
At 6:43 a.m. on Feb. 9, LBUSD's school safety chief advised that AQMD "predicted no alerts for unhealthful conditions for schools in our area today [Feb. 9]." This was technically true for adults, for whom the bureaucratically decreed unhealthy level begins at 151...but we're not sure if that's true for kids...and especially not kids with asthma or other respiratory problems.
On Feb. 9 at roughly 10:00 a.m. (by which time kids were already in school and perhaps exercising outside; we don't know what happened at each particular school), AQMD issued a release stating:
For the third day in a row, the region's air quality agency has issued a smoke advisory for many areas across the Southland due to the wildfires. Concentrations of fine particulates are expected to reach the unhealthy level in these areas.
[Emphasis in original] All individuals are urged to exercise caution and avoid unnecessary outdoor activities in the smoke-impacted areas.
Air quality is expected to exceed 100 on the Air Quality Index (AQI) all day today [Feb. 9] due to smoke impacts in the following areas: [listings include south coastal L.A., which includes LB, and adjacent OC areas]
Is this what you want for you and your children? We don't. We want this antiquated system brought into the internet age so the public and school administrators can know what's really happening when it happens, on demand with a mouse click, not relying on some old fashioned AQMD "advisory."
We think it would be in the interest of LBUSD (and other school districts) to urge AQMD to put real world, real time, hourly pollution data on the AQMD website where people and principals can see it. It's very much in LB's interest to have this information because we're downwind in Santa Ana fire conditions and at other times impacted by two Ports, four freeways, an Airport and RRs.
As of Thursday night Feb. 9, AQMD forecast slightly better but still elevated AQI levels for Feb. 10 (107 for South Coastal L.A. including LB, 127-129 for LB-adjacent parts of OC). To view AQMD's most recent "forecast," click here.
To view AQMD's "averaged" data, click AQMD "current" conditions.
Finally, there's common sense. Yes, if one sees a smoke plume and ash falling, it's not smart for adults or kids to be outside. But microfine particles can't be seen...and the taxpaying public is paying for more than common sense and deserves more.
We want AQMD to do better...and it should.
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