LONG BEACH - While politicians like to tout improvements in pollution and air quality, that's not the world that scientists like John Froines see.
"Air pollution is not getting better, it's getting worse," said Froines, a retired UCLA professor and director of the Southern California Particle Center.
Speaking at a meeting Tuesday of the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, Froines said the more that scientists learn about air pollution and its effects, the more alarming the picture becomes.
In the 13 years the Southern California Particle Center has been studying the effects of air pollution and particulate matter, Froines said that beyond its cancerous effects on lungs, air pollution is now being linked to heart disease, exacerbating and possibly causing asthma, low birth weights and even brain damage.
"We didn't know all of this existed," Froines said.
Froines' comments come in the wake of the International Agency for the Research of Cancer classifying diesel exhaust as carcinogenic, rather than "probably" carcinogenic.
According to Froines, despite industry attempts to sway IARC with claims about "clean" diesel, "the science is unequivocal."
Froines said the IARC declaration, for all its political import, wasn't a stretch. He said scientists have linked smoke to cancer since 1775 when a study of chimney sweeps in England showed high levels of cancer.
Especially troubling is that while
Froines said these ultrafine particles can be the size of a virus and more dangerous than larger particulate matter.
These particles can go straight to the brain through the nasal passages and along nerves, rather than going through the lungs.
There is evidence that black carbon reduces cognitive function and that particles can produce possibly chronic inflammation.
Also, while large particles are kept out of cells, the ultrafine particles, "have direct access to intracellular proteins, organelles and DNA, which may greatly enhance their toxic potential."
"Neurological disease is a big outcome that we don't yet understand," Froines said "There has to be a focus on ultrafines, and it hasn't happened."
In his wide-ranging talk, Froines touched on the high particle counts in Long Beach.
Measuring particle counts per square centimeter, the size of a sugar cube, Froines said the count was about 600 for coastal air. By contrast, in San Pedro, near the port, the number rose to 42,000. Along the Harbor (110) Freeway, where there are few diesel trucks, the count was 135,000. Along the Long Beach (710) Freeway, with its large concentration of diesel trucks, the count was 300,000 to 600,000, with a maximum measured count of 3 million.
Froines said his group has been able to detail "the pathway from exposure to changes in cells to inflammation and (adverse) health effects."
With that, he hopes measures can be found to intervene along the steps that leads to asthma.
Dealing with air pollution and diesel is a difficult proposition, Froines said.
"Will we eliminate diesel? I don't know. That's a political question," Froines said. "In the long run, we need to eliminate fossil fuel combustion."