What's It Like To Breathe LA's Bad Air (And What Can You Do About It)?

The smog's been ugly recently, but experts say the air quality isn't as bad as it looks. (File photo: The downtown skyline is enveloped in smog shortly before sunset on November 17, 2006 in Los Angeles. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Not breathing does catch up with a person eventually, and breathing in L.A. is difficult in the summertime. At least it is for me, because I'm asthmatic.

So far this year, the L.A. area has had 79 days of high smog. It turns out it's not as bad as it was at this time last year, with 92 of these extra-smoggy days. And in 2017, there had been 99 high smog days at this time of year.

Yet for some reason, this year my lungs are faring far worse.

I've received what seems like an avalanche of unhealthy air alert emails from L.A. County Public Health since the rain stopped in May. Meanwhile, I kept ignoring and shrugging off the tightness in my lungs until I couldn't deny it any longer.

After two weeks of turning to my rescue inhaler and enjoying diminishing relief, I landed in the emergency department, with a nurse gently chiding me for waiting until my breathing had gotten so bad.

BAD AIR, PLUS MUCH MORE

I blamed the poor air quality, but it's probably not that simple. Asthma is triggered by many factors.

Dr. Sonal Patel, a volunteer physician with the American Lung Association and an allergist in Pasadena, told me she is seeing many patients who are struggling like I have been.

"In people with asthma, there are so many things that might affect whether or not they're having an asthma attack," said Patel. "Air quality being one of them, if they have allergies, their emotional state, whether they have a cold."

In my case, I did have a cold a few weeks ago. Another factor might be the smell in the communal laundry room in my apartment complex. I'm pretty sure someone has been tossing some spent kitty litter in there, and my cat allergy is severe.

"It's sort of like a cup that you're adding water to, and each one of those things, contribute some water to your cup and, eventually, your cup overflows, and that's when you have an asthma attack," said Patel.

This summer, I've been treading water.

CREATING A HEALTHY SPACE TO BREATHE

Leaving the emergency department, I bought an exorbitantly priced air purifier for my home and scheduled a follow-up with my primary care doctor.

Patel thinks that's a good first step.

"I tell patients to create an allergen-free zone in their house, so those 8 or 10 hours a day while they're at home, they're breathing in clean air," said Patel.

My brother-in-law urged me to buy a pollution mask. He's experienced living in worse air pollution than I am, having worked in both Mumbai and Delhi. Both cities have worse air pollution than L.A.

Begrudgingly, and more than a little embarrassed from the looks I get on the street, this week I took his advice and started sporting a floral mask that obscures a PM 2.5 filter to screen out those tiny particulates that irritate my lungs.

It's difficult to gauge how much the mask will actually help, Patel said. Masks protect against particles of junk in the air, although they can't do too much to keep all of the pollution out of your lungs. But using one is not going to hurt.

DO I HAVE TO MOVE?

All the fuss over my lungs takes me back to first grade when we moved out of L.A. County, in part because the air quality was so bad. My mom remembers frequent headaches that she blames on the 1980s-era smog. Both she and I had asthma symptoms pretty regularly back then.

"L.A. is my home. I'm an Angeleno. I love it here, and the air quality standards have definitely improved from when I was growing up," said Patel.

She says it's her job to help her patients do what they want do without too many restrictions, whether that's travel, exercise, or continuing to live in L.A.

As for me, I'm working with my doctor to do the same. I'm breathing better now with a new normal that has included a combination of prescription steroid tablets, preventative inhalers, and daily whiffs of medicated vapor from a nebulizer machine I use at home.

SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM BAD AIR?

If you have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or any lung or heart disease, there are steps you can take to breathe easier.

  • Talk to your doctor to make sure your meds are right.
  • Exercise inside or in the early morning when the air is best.
  • Check the air quality before you go outside. It's on AQMD's website and their mobile app.
  • Make your home an allergen-free space.
  • Get a HEPA air filter.
  • You could try a pollution mask with a PM2.5 or N95 filter. A surgical mask won't help.