File photo

SMO — Congressman Henry Waxman, D-Santa Monica, is calling on air quality officials to investigate a claims by scientists that there are high levels of ultrafine particle pollution around Santa Monica Airport.

A study released last week by scientists from UCLA and the California Air Resources Board suggested that ultrafine particle levels were between four and 37 times higher in the area downwind of SMO than in neighboring areas. Research on particulate matter pollution indicates it can cause a range of health impacts, including premature death, heart attack, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma and decreased lung function.

In the letter to South Coast Air Quality Management District Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein, Waxman said he has “long been concerned” about air pollution at SMO and its impacts on those living near or working at the airport.

“The residents neighboring SMO and those who work there are entitled to a safe living and working environment, including clean air protected by pollution controls and responsible management practices,” Waxman said in the letter.

A jet flies over a home off of Bundy Drive as it makes its way to Santa Monica Airport. (File photo)

Residents living around SMO in both Santa Monica and Mar Vista have raised concerns about pollution from piston-powered and jet aircraft landing and taking off from the airport for several years.

A spokesperson with the management district confirmed the letter had been received Wednesday afternoon but could not yet comment as it is still under review.

In the study, scientists specifically single out SMO as a “significant source” for the elevated ultrafine particle concentrations in nearby neighborhoods. It also cites traffic on Interstate 405, saying there were “striking and immediate” reductions in particulate pollution corresponding to a lack of traffic congestion because of Carmageddon, when the freeway was shut down because of construction. Scientists compared those levels to those during normal Saturdays.

“Although pollution reduction due to decreased traffic is not unexpected, this dramatic improvement … provides clear evidence air quality can be improved through strategies such as heavy-duty-diesel vehicle retrofits, earlier retirement of [dirty vehicles] and transition to electric vehicles and alternative fuels, with corresponding benefits for public health,” the authors wrote in the study.

For the study UCLA researchers drove an electric Toyota RAV4 equipped with air pollution monitors through residential streets in Boyle Heights, downtown, West Los Angeles and a part of Mar Vista known as North Westdale.

They focused their measurements, taken during summer afternoons in 2008 and 2011, on an especially troubling type of soot called ultrafine particles, which are found in vehicle exhaust. The pollutants are a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair, can lodge deep in the lungs and move into bloodstream and the brain, posing a health risk to people with respiratory and cardiovascular disease, according to the L.A. Times, which first reported on the study’s findings.

In one encouraging sign, the scientists detected a drop in ultrafine-particle pollution between 2008 and 2011. The improvement was most noticeable in West Los Angeles, a wealthier area where researchers suspect people are buying more new vehicles with cleaner, more efficient engines, according to the Times.

The same team of UCLA researchers and the South Coast Air Quality Management District have focused on SMO air quality impacts before. UCLA scientists found then that people who live and work near SMO are exposed to higher levels of air pollution.

The management district found in 2011 that ultrafine particle and black carbon emissions were substantially higher than normal at monitoring sites at SMO during short time periods when planes were getting ready for takeoff. Further health studies were recommended to better understand the potential risks associated with exposure to these and other combustion-related emissions.

Some of the recommendations included increasing the width of a blast fence, reducing holding times for all get aircraft, re-directing the exhaust during pre-flight and limiting traffic for larger commuter aircraft.

Waxman wants to know from the management district if there are existing regulations to address ultrafine particle pollution and what additional steps can be taken. Waxman is a ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

“The community has brought this air pollution issue to light more than two decades ago,” said Martin Rubin, director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution. “Enough with the soft ball questions already.”

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