Bonnie Holmes-Gen: On Pollution and Air Quality in America
Bonnie Holmes-Gen is the Senior Director for Policy and Advocacy at the American Lung Association in California (ALAC). At the ALA, Ms. Holmes-Gen is responsible for advocating the public policy concerns of ALAC before the California Legislature and state agencies such as the California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission. She specializes in air quality and environmental health issues including: global warming and AB 32 implementation; heavy-duty diesel pollution; alternative fuel and zero emission vehicle programs; electricity generation and air pollution; indoor air pollution; and statewide and local air pollution control programs.
Q: What did the 2014 State of the Air report find about current state of air quality in California and the U.S.?
A: Too many people are breathing unhealthy air in Los Angeles, and throughout the country. While real and steady progress has been made, there is still a lot of work to do. Los Angeles continues to top the list of cities that have the worst ozone pollution. The bad news is that we continue to get failing grades in the L.A. region, but the good news is there’s been a tremendous amount of work to reduce pollution. The investment and control measures that have been implemented have made a big difference. Over a third of the ozone pollution has been erased because of our state, federal and local control measures.
What is the difference between Ozone pollution and Particle pollution?
Ozone is an irritating gas – it actually causes burns on lung tissues like a bad sunburn. It’s a corrosive gas and can cause health problems the day you breathe it in and long after. Ozone pollution contributes to worsening of respiratory illnesses, triggers asthma attacks, and has even been linked to heart attacks, strokes and can cause premature death.
We considered particle pollution one of the most dangerous pollutants. These tiny particles are a mix of ash, soot, metals and chemicals, and are a fraction of the size of a human hair. These tiny pollutants are breathed deep into the lungs they pass through into the bloodstream and affect the heart and other organs. Tiny particles have been linked to heart attacks and strokes, they’ve been linked to cancer including lung cancer, they cause asthma attacks, and these tiny particles have also been linked to delayed lung growth in children.
What laws and regulations will make the difference in the future?
We’re moving in the right direction, and seeing some steady reduction in pollution in Los Angeles and across the state. But we do need to take some important steps because transportation sources are the majority of our pollution problems. We really need to focus on how we can ratchet down dramatically on transportation pollution if we’re going to achieve our standards. That means we need to transition to zero emission and near zero emission technologies and fuels. In the passenger car sector, we need to move to battery electric, fuel cell, other zero emission cars as quickly as we can. In terms of the heavy duty sector – trucks, buses, and the ports – we also need to move to zero emission and adopt the cleanest sources we have available.
We’re actually supporting some legislation by Senator [Kevin] de leon (D-Los Angeles), SB 1275, and also by Senator [Ricardo] Lara (D-Long Beach), SB 1204. This package of bills is geared towards putting a million electric vehicles and near zero emission trucks and buses on California roads, and to do all of that in the next decade, and to ensure that all income levels benefit from clean transportation technologies. We need to do more of what we have been doing, [like] with California’s strict emissions standards on cars and fuels, and we need to make this transition to zero emission.
What can the individual do?
We need to grow healthier in terms of our community planning, and pay attention to what individuals can do in terms of changing individual patterns of getting around. Everybody can make a difference in their community by driving less and embracing cleaner, zero emission transportation options that are out there. If someone is buying a new vehicle, consider a battery electric, plug-in hybrid or fuel cell vehicle, or even just a cleaner conventional vehicle. Everybody needs to be focused on reducing emissions from the cars they drive and finding other ways to get around.
We can conserve in our home and reduce energy usage. This helps to reduce emissions from the power sector. Reducing wood burning is important because wood smoke contributes to winter time peaks in particle pollution, so people should consider investing in cleaner natural gas or electric fireplaces that don’t emit particles and don’t harm health. Supporting community efforts to plan for smarter growth, more transit focused growth, is another action people can take.
Kareem Maddox – Kareem holds an A.B. in English from Princeton University, and loves narrative of all kinds. He splits time between a tech firm and a National Public Radio affiliate station in Los Angeles.