Nine: Something in the Air

Posted: October 18, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Ocean air blows in from the coast, drifts through Santa Monica and Marina Del Ray, climbs up through Century City, and gets about as far as Hancock Park and Beverly Hills before giving up. It’s too hard a slog up that hill. Hollywood and Downtown bake in the summer. The Valley fries. Cool air is a lot like money in Los Angeles. It trickles down through the rich neighbourhoods but doesn’t get any further.

You could divide LA in this way: not by race or class but by temperature, by the cool and the hot. Hot folks sweat in hovel apartments while cool folks sip cocktails by the pool. Hot folks have given up on feeling a refreshing breeze in their neighbourhoods – they know where the cool air is and they know it’s going to stay there.

Air pollution, on the other hand, is a great leveller in Los Angeles. Everybody breathes it in, no matter where you live. It might be slightly worse in some neighbourhoods, but it is very bad everywhere. Beverly Hills – one of the richest neighbourhoods in LA – scores 47.1 on the Air Quality Index for example, and Compton – one of the poorest – scores 47.6. The national average is 32.0, putting both cities way above the rest of America. Malibu is one of the few cities in Los Angeles which scores anywhere near average, hitting 35.2 on the AQI. Must be the effect of their fascist police chief.

Of all the harmful externalities from industrialisation, air pollution is one of the more egalitarian. This is the case in Los Angeles at least, where air pollution in rich Santa Monica and working-class Inglewood are about the same. On a national scale the picture isn’t so democratic and, predictably, the poor fare badly.

Who would have thought Los Angeles was so close to the spirit level? Pollution in LA doesn’t give a shit if you’re rich or poor, black or white; it sinks in your lungs regardless. There is equality in lead and nitrogen dioxide, but as Albert Camus wrote of death’s equality, “it was not one that anybody wanted.”

Los Angels is ranked third in the United States for annual particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association. It is ranked first for ozone pollution – a gas which, when at ground-level, can cause premature death, asthma, bronchitis and other illnesses. A study by the University of California School of Public Health found that people who live in areas with high ozone levels are a third more likely to die from lung disease.

What is the cause of LA’s pollution nightmare? The automobile. There were 6,675,888 vehicles registered in Los Angeles County as of January 2007, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. That’s a lot for a county with a population of 9,889,056. Poor public transport infrastructure means that 79.5% of commuters drove their car to work in 2005, with a mere 10% taking public transit.

Los Angeles’ extensive freeway system is another major cause of pollution. People who live near freeways are twice as likely to suffer from a hardening of the arteries which causes heart disease and strokes, according to a study by USC, UC Berkeley and other institutions.

Rich or poor, there is something in the air in Los Angeles and it is slowly killing everyone.

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