SUNSET PARK — City Council in January could direct city staff to begin working with federal and state agencies to promote research on “ultrafine particles” — tiny pollutants generated by planes that some Santa Monica neighborhood groups have urged City Hall to deal with for years.

The goal would be to play a role in creating federal or state regulations for the particles, which scientists have only recently begun to study but which could cause negative health effects at high concentrations.

The particles are spewed out by private jets and planes landing at Santa Monica Airport and get blown into residential neighborhoods and parks, groups like Friends of Sunset Park and Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution have said.

City Councilman Kevin McKeown said he placed the airport pollution item on the agenda for Jan. 12 following a meeting of City Hall’s Task Force on the Environment he attended Monday night.

During the meeting the panel considered a recent study led by UCLA scientists that measured pollution at Santa Monica Airport and concluded that ultrafine particle levels in nearby neighborhoods are on average 11 times higher than baseline measurements, and peak at several hundred times higher than normal levels.

The task force didn’t formally recommend that council take action on airport pollution, but McKeown said the panel’s discussion of the research into ultrafine particles made it clear that City Hall could play a constructive roll in helping create state or national standards for regulating the pollution.

He pointed to comments by Susan Mearns, an environmental scientist who sits on the task force. Mearns said studies have shown possible risks of exposure to high levels of ultrafine particles, but emphasized that to establish regulations for the pollutants, scientists will need to develop a thorough understanding of the particles’ precise “toxicity.” Knowing the particles’ toxicity would allow an agency to regulate exposure similarly to how the government regulates exposure to substances like lead.

“The concerns are real. I think that they have been heard by regulatory agencies, I think they’ve been heard by the city, I think they’ve been heard by the task force,” she said. Efforts to regulate the particles are held up, though, because “there is a key piece of information which is the toxicity data, which is lacking,” she said.

Mearns estimated the cost for a toxicity study at around $1 million.

“This has to be at the state or federal level, but what we can be is the activating agent to get this done,” McKeown said.

The task force is expected to further consider making a detailed recommendation to City Council on airport pollution in March, after a study on the airport’s impacts by the South Coast Air Quality Management District becomes public.

Ping Ho, a member of Friends for Sunset Park who has championed City Hall involvement in addressing airport pollution, said she believes momentum is building to begin to regulate ultrafine particles.

“Now science has actually picked up on this and it’s going on its own,” she said. “I actually think that we are looking at the possibility of having some health standard within the foreseeable future.”

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