By Sue Gray

Sopris Sun Correspondent

In 1964 a thick haze covered the Los Angeles area for six days straight. The smog was a result of pollutants such as car exhaust and factory emissions reacting with strong sunlight. This chemical reaction creates ground level ozone, the principle component of smog, which reduces visibility to a few miles, and causes physical reactions like burning lungs, itchy watery eyes, and severe respiratory problems. Children, the elderly and those with asthma or heart ailments are most at risk.

The first Los Angeles smog attack was in 1943 and by 1947, recognizing the need to monitor the air quality of the Los Angeles Basin and issue warnings to people who might be particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of smog, the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District was formed. A system of “Smog Alerts” was developed to inform the public of the level of hazardous air pollution. Under these alerts, people were discouraged from physical activity and outdoor exposure. School children were kept indoors during recess and sports events were canceled.

At first, the nature and source of L.A.’s smog problem was not clearly understood. But by 1952, a theory arose that automobile exhaust was a major source of air pollution. In 1955 the Federal Air Pollution Control Act provided funds for research into the causes and effects of air pollution. Studies confirmed that chemicals in vehicle exhaust were the main ingredient in smog.

With its burgeoning population and associated vehicle growth, California was the driving force, literally, for establishing air quality standards and vehicle emissions controls. In 1959 legislation was enacted in California that required emission control devices for motor vehicles. A year later, the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board was established to test and certify emission control devices for installation on cars being sold in California.

The focus on limiting vehicle emissions had a positive effect on Southern California’s air quality. There were 102 smog alerts in 1980, 1983 and 1985, and 42 in 1990. By the year 2000, with 23.4 million registered vehicles in California and annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) of 280 billion miles, emissions were about 1.2 million tons per year. That was 200,000 tons less than in 1990, when the VMT was 240 billion.

Despite its successes, Southern California remains one of the most polluted areas in our nation. Los Angeles was rated the most polluted city in 2013 by The American Lung Association, because ozone levels are twice the federal health standard for two-thirds of the year.
The truly unfortunate thing about vehicular air pollution is that it doesn’t stay in one place. A layer of smog now covers our planet and has been linked to melting ice caps and warming temperature trends, which spells disaster for life as we know it.


For various reasons, including environmental awareness, Americans are increasingly choosing to carpool, walk, bike, or take public transportation. A report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that the average American drives 7.6 percent fewer miles today than in 2004, the peak of per-capita driving. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of people bicycling to work increased in 85 of 100 cities studied, and public transit ridership also went up.

Here in the Roaring Fork Valley we have an abundance of alternative transportation options. Our small communities are accessible by foot and bike, and proximity to friends and neighbors makes carpooling easy. The Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) runs an excellent bus system. We have a premier bike/pedestrian path on the Rio Grande Trail from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, and the dedicated volunteers of the Carbondale Bike, Pedestrian and Trails Commission are continuously working to improve safe access for cyclists and walkers.

Still, most of us need to drive a car from time to time, which inevitably contributes to both local air pollution and greenhouse gasses. Short of offing our current vehicle in favor of an electric car, what can we do to reduce our pollution level when driving? It turns out that conserving fuel reduces emissions, so you’ll be saving money on fuel costs while clearing the air when you try these tips from the Environmental Protection Agency:

  • Combine errands — Getting it all done at once uses less fuel than separate trips. Go to your farthest destination first to warm up your engine for better fuel economy.
  • Drive the posted speed limit or slightly below — Vehicle fuel consumption increases about 5 percent for every 5 miles above 60 mph.
  • Avoid rapid starts and stops — “Jack rabbit” starts can increase fuel use by up to 40 percent. Fuel savings and lower emissions occur with gradual acceleration and deceleration.
  • Open and close the windows — Put the windows down when driving under 40 mph. Above 40 mph, air conditioning is more fuel efficient. Use the “recycle inside air” feature, which reuses the cooled air inside the car, so it uses less gas.
  • Maintain your car: Change engine oil with correct grade oil (1-2 percent miles-per-gallon benefit); replace clogged air filters (up to 10 percent miles-per-gallon benefit); tune your engine (4 percent average miles per gallon benefit).
  • Check tire pressure monthly — Proper tire pressure is safer, extends tire life and can improve miles-per-gallon by up to 3 percent.
  • Respect C’dale’s idling ordinance — That’s right, there’s a law (ordinance 7.18.010)! Today’s automobile engines don’t need “warming up,” and we certainly don’t need exhaust fumes spewing into our air from vehicles left to idle while parked. If your car’s not moving, the engine shouldn’t be running.

Buy low

If you decide to buy a new car, consider a low emission vehicle. The Environmental Performance Label, required on all vehicles manufactured after Jan. 1, 2009, gives consumers a way to compare the level of greenhouse gas/smog emissions.
Vehicle exhaust is currently the leading source of hazardous air pollution, and a vast majority of the world’s scientists agree it is contributing to man-made climate change. But with evolving technologies and more people making sustainable transportation choices, it’s possible we may be able to reverse that trend by the end of the century. Every little bit helps.
See for the idling ordinance and a link to the Bike, Pedestrian, and Trails Commission.