San Diego's Dirty, Not-So-Little Secret

[Please note: this article was updated on Jan 12, 2017 with new and corrected information]

San Diego Smog circa 1974 - Photo Credit Don Taylor, Creative Commons License 2.0

Really Bad Air

Did you know that San Diegans breathe some of the most polluted air in the country? And that the closer you live to one of our many highways, the worse your health risks will be?

Anyone who has lived in San Diego over the last decade has probably experienced this more than once: Waking up at 3:00 a.m. to an acrid, eye-watering, lung-burning stench; coughing and wheezing while rushing around to close all the windows in the vain attempt to keep the bad air outside; then burrowing back under the blankets in an equally vain attempt to escape the worst effects. Since I moved to San Diego in 2002, the frequency of these pollution events seems to be increasing. Of course, it also depends on where in San Diego you happen to live. When I had an apartment in Pacific Beach, the bad air was present almost every morning on weekdays, but quickly dissipated with the rising sun. Now, living in East County, the "home invasion" of wicked smells occurs just once or twice a week, usually in the middle of the night. Again, though, the frequency does seem to be increasing...and the intensity of the stench is getting worse.

So what is going on? Is this just a natural consequence of living in a single-driver car-addicted society? That has been a frequent criticism of neighboring Los Angeles and its surrounds, where smog events and air quality health alerts are much more prevalent. And there is data to back up the assertion that most of the smog comes from cars - along with plentiful jokes and anecdotes about Angelinos driving two blocks from their house to purchase a bottle of water. And although there are similar statistics for San Diego's increasing traffic, I think the "car culture" argument is really a massive red herring.

And here's why. Anyone who grew up in the U.S. will remember the days before emission standards, testing and control technologies. That high, almost fruity and acidic aroma from the back of a running vehicle was just a fact of life in the fifties and sixties. Cars stank. So let's call that "classic old exhaust" - or C.O.E. for short. Then, in the 1970s, health concerns prompted Clean Air legislation, and catalytic converters were required in U.S. passenger vehicles. Over time, as older cars aged out of what was driving on our streets, car exhaust smells began to change. Occasionally we would encounter the rotten egg plume of a failing catalytic converter, and there might still be an occasional 1960s VW Bug or restored Mustang that would blast us with a reminder of the good old days, but for the most part the worst offenders were being removed from the roads.

Or so I thought.

After I moved to San Diego and was assaulted by high concentrations of pre-1970s C.O.E., I just didn't understand what was happening. In Seattle I had lived right next to two major highways for years, and never had to breathe air this acrid and toxic. What was was causing this? I wrote emails to different researchers at universities in San Diego, asking what they thought the reason could be. I received no response. I called them and left messages. Still no response. I then emailed the San Diego Air Pollution Control District with the same question. I received no response. I called the San Diego APCD and left messages - twice. No response.

So I began to speculate. What could be the source of all this nasty air? Were there a growing number of cars on the road that were somehow evading emission controls? As if to confirm this suspicion, I began to notice that, while driving behind certain newer vehicles in slow traffic, I picked up on the pre-1970s C.O.E. odor. I would then look at the plates of these newer vehicles to see where the cars were from, and discovered that, most of the time, they had Baja plates from Mexico. Most of the time...but not always. Sometimes the vehicles had current California registrations. When I asked around regarding these observations, San Diego natives confirmed that not only did most Mexico vehicles not require the same emission controls as here in the U.S. (not even catalytic converters), but that many people would buy the cheaper Mexico models, bring them into the U.S., and then work out various ways to get around emissions testing and other requirements when they registered them in California. It was also not unheard of, they said, for vehicles made in the U.S. to be sold across the border, only to have their catalytic converters removed and emissions controls deactivated before being driven back into the U.S. The converters weren't needed in Mexico, after all, and were worth upwards of $100 each.

What? Seriously? Was this really that common...? And as if in answer to my incredulity, within the next couple of months I witnessed the San Diego Police Department performing "spot checks" of vehicle emissions on the side of the road. These looked like the setups police use to funnel potential DUIs into a checkpoint - with the cones, flashing lights and multiple police cars. But instead of having drivers take a breathalyzer, the police tested the exhaust. Here is more on these random "Mobile Smog Checks:"

Apparently, these random checks could become more sophisticated and widespread in the near future:

According to a California Highway Patrol contact that I spoke with, the mobile smog checkpoints the CHP facilitates are an effort of the California DMV and BAR to ensure that local Smog Check stations and technicians are not circumventing good practices for emissions testing. As such, the mobile testing stations are a potential source of revenue for the State, as expanded by AB 2289 (see In addition, one vehicle testing resource I spoke with also indicated that some mobile stations are set up specifically in areas where local communities have expressed concern about potential violators. In both cases, the ongoing investment in technology and human resources makes it clear that uncorrected emissions violations and re-failures of corrected issues are a real problem. Here are some charts from the BAR's 2016 Smog Check Performance Report that use this roadside data to illustrate the long-term and ongoing problem:

That said, I didn't think much more about this until a few more years had passed, and the C.O.E. events became worse and more frequent. Eventually, after my wife Mollie began to suffer serious health effects from the bad night air - and I myself was getting headaches and interrupted sleep when the stench woke me up - I filed a formal complaint with e APCD. At long last I received a call from an inspector at that agency. And you know what he said? Unless I could pinpoint the source of the pollution, and the exact times it regularly occurred, his agency could do nothing. I explained that I thought it was from cars without emission controls, and was the most extreme around 3 a.m., though at irregular intervals of days or weeks. Apologizing, he indicated that "general vehicle traffic" was not under his agency's jurisdiction. He apologized, but said there was nothing he could do.

I then contacted the Ombudsman's office of the California Air Resources Board, where I was invited to make public comment at a Sacramento Board meeting. As I live in San Diego that's not something I can easily do, so I was then referred to an emissions researcher at a private company. He was extremely helpful, and clarified many of the moving parts involved in regulating emissions here in California. His recommendation was that I contact the Bureau of Automotive Repairs, as they are the agency who would be most involved with end-user violations here in San Diego County. I then filed a complaint with the BAR, so...we shall see how that pans out. However, BAR can't do anything about polluting vehicles with Mexican registrations that are driving across the border....

So, apart from moving away from the horrific San Diego air for the sake of our health, what are the options?

First, here are some points of research to consider:

1) According to, as of July 2016 a combined total of about 100,000 trucks and 2.5 Million passenger vehicles were entering California from Mexico every month on average, and these numbers remained fairly constant throughout the previous year as well. From the known profile of commuting and commercial activity between U.S. and Mexico, we can also be fairly certain that the majority of these vehicles do not meet U.S. vehicle emission standards, and that many if not most do not have catalytic converters.

2) The only substantive consideration of pollution impacts from Mexico's vehicles was triggered by some NAFTA-related laws and court rulings about truck transport - and only truck transport. These allowed more trucks to enter the U.S. - and travel further into the U.S. - without complying with U.S. emissions standards (see At one point, the EPA stepped in to provide Mexican truck-drivers at some border crossings with upgrade grants for their vehicles to bring them up U.S. standards (see In a somewhat ironic development, however, Mexico then loosened restrictions on pre-2007 U.S. truck sales in Mexico, so that any U.S. fleets that weren't compliant with 2007 emissions standards could be unloaded by U.S. companies there. This, in combination with the NAFTA-related increase in Mexican manufacturing and exports, meant that a large number of pre-2007 trucks were snapped up by Mexican transporters...and driven right back across the border to either pollute U.S. air...or receive taxpayer-funded EPA upgrades (see Again, however, this is only attempting to address commercial trucking, not passenger vehicles.

4) According to the EPA, transportation is responsible for some 50% of nitrogen oxide, 30% of VOCs, and 20% of particulate pollution (see Although non-road sources (trains, boats, planes, etc.) do contribute to these numbers, the most acutely felt impacts of pollution in urban areas are from on-road vehicles (cars, trucks, etc.). And the denser the traffic and closer the proximity of residences to major traffic routes, the greater the health risk to those residents (see

5) The American Lung Association has consistently rated air quality in San Diego with an "F," their worst rating. This is mainly the result of ozone pollution, which is of course a consequence of fuel combustion - roughly half of which can be linked to on-road transportation for most of the year. However, historically and currently, nearly all other pollutants (particulates, CO, NO2, etc.) have also sustained higher averages in San Diego and the rest of Southern California (see

6) Health impacts from this level of pollution are severe. Many researchers have made the comparison between living beside a highway and smoking. And even living in a town with moderate vehicle pollution levels can effect health over time - in particular, ozone and particulates increase risks for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as risks for cancer, reproductive harm, developmental harm and premature death (see and

7) Catalytic converters reduce emissions of CO, hydrocarbons, VOCs and NOx, which in combination with sunlight create ozone. ("Ozone formation is driven by two major classes of directly emitted precursors: nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). The relation between O3, NOx and VOC is driven by complex nonlinear photochemistry" - see In combination with other, now standard emission control technologies in U.S. vehicles, catalytic converters reduce these emissions by up to 90%.

The 72% Solution

Taken altogether, where does all of this data lead us? Well, we have a good approximation of how many vehicles are crossing the California border each day, to drive through and around San Diego County without catalytic converters. We don't have exact figures on how many vehicles registered on this side of the border are trying to cheat on smog tests, but from my informal records of the routine assaults on my olfactory I've experienced while driving in San Diego over the past decade, I think that number would have to be at least 10%. Without exact numbers or AADT data that is user-friendly from California DOT, can we come up with a rough guestimate of what percentage of vehicles are driving around San Diego County each day that might be categorized as "gross emitters," or contributing directly to unhealthy levels of pollution? Sure. Just using AADT for I-5, I-8 and I-15 to propose a baseline (from, then subtracting the in-bound cross-border traffic from Mexico in combination with an estimate of local smog-cheaters, how about:

(87,000 + 65,000 [10% of 739K-87K]) of 739,000 total vehicles = 20.57%

If we then adjust for trucks (which average just 3.7% of total traffic, but contribute 11% of on-road emission volumes), we arrive at a possible number of 22.83% of total vehicles on the road daily. But that isn't an accurate percentage of the pollutants those vehicles contribute, since we haven't adjusted for the lack of catalytic converters. Being generous, we could say that this 22.83% actually contributes eight times the ozone precursor pollution (per vehicle) compared to vehicles with catalyzed emissions. Which is how we can arrive at roughly 72% of the ozone-precursor pollution from on-road vehicles being produced by vehicles without catalytic converters. If my guestimates are correct, then just over half of these are vehicles driving legally across the border, and just under half are being operated illegally by folks who circumvent smog checks.

72%. And we wonder why, despite such rigorous smog enforcements on California drivers, Southern California has such crappy air....

Even if these numbers aren't exact, we're still talking about an enormous volume of PREVENTABLE pollution here. If I'm only half-right, addressing vehicular polluters from Mexico - and intercepting smog cheaters and re-fails of smog-checked vehicles that reside in San Diego County - would have a huge impact on quality of life and health in San Diego.

It would sure be nifty if this unhealthy problem could be addressed soon - before my wife and I are compelled to leave San Diego for good.

For more info:

U.S. Air Pollution Wiki:

California Traffic Census:

San Diego GHG Emission Data for On-Road Vehicles:

What are some things that as a well-off middle class citizen of the USA, I most likely don't understand about the world?

In answer to Quora question "What are some things that as a well-off middle class citizen of the USA, I most likely don't understand about the world?"

That is a brave question to ask. Here is an answer from someone who lived abroad when I was in my teens, and had my U.S.-centric worldview altered considerably through that experience. That adjustment has only been confirmed and expanded as I later traveled and befriended people in other parts of the world. First, here are some widely held views outside of the U.S. about the U.S.:

1) A surprising majority of people in other developed countries view "average" Americans as arrogant, ignorant, utterly clueless idiots. This is in part due to how many Americans comport themselves when traveling abroad, but it is also a result of observing U.S. politics and lifestyle from afar. When Ronald Reagan was President, all over Europe I saw people in bars, private homes and even kids in school laughing hysterically at the astoundingly stupid things he would say and do. And the fact that many Americans still venerate Reagan just amplifies the opinion that "Yanks are dumb." And of course when George W. Bush displayed an even more extreme befuddled incompetence, it just threw gasoline on the fire. Now Donald Trump, someone clearly a more hapless fool than either Reagan or Bush, is a frontrunner in his party. This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, because there are also Supreme Court decisions, business practices, reality TV shows, talk radio, popular consumer trends and a whole host of other hallmarks of American culture that seem to indicate a very low bar of education, intelligence and common sense. Thankfully Texas, as a U.S. frontrunner in amplifying the Dunning Kruger effect, routinely trumpets its desire to leave the Union. But again, the office of President is often seen as a reflection of a nation's people. And U.S. Presidents have all too often been a very poor reflection.

2) Americans like to "Americanize" everything. Whether a German sausage becomes a Hot Dog, or a complex Eastern religion becomes a weekend retreat growth-and-development fad, or a British TV show is reproduced for American audiences, the U.S. is seen as the great co-opter, customizer and commoditizer of foreign cultures and ideas. This has even happened to the word "America," which many in South and Central America believe applies to them as well.

3) The U.S. is home to a disproportionate number of fearful, sexually repressed, violent people. In part this is just what the U.S. advertises to the rest of the world through its news media, but it's also backed up with some rather unfortunate statistics.

4) American capitalism and charity did not save the world or lift it out of poverty. The belief in "America as the world's Savior" is perhaps the most egregious distortion that many Americans hold dear, but it is considered somewhere between insulting and laughable almost everywhere else.

5) The U.S. pretty much single-handedly created Islamist terrorism as the movement it is today. Not just through economic policies, supporting oppressive dictators, and initiating wars in the Middle East, but by ignoring the plight of muslims around the world for decades. Unquestioning support of Israel over the years didn't help, of course, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. Here's an essay I wrote about this issue on the 1o-year anniversary of 9.11: Growing Beyond an Egocentric Worldview

Okay, so enough about the U.S. After all, focusing on the U.S. or thinking it is the most important nation on the globe is also a distinctly American trait. So here are some things I learned about other cultures while living and traveling abroad:

1) While all people may be fundamentally the same in terms of their emotions, priorities, relationship dynamics, hopes and so forth, the differences between cultures are stunning. Just stunning. What is considered polite in one culture becomes an extreme insult in another. What is taken for granted as routine in one culture is considered extraordinary in another. What is highly esteemed and valued in one culture is considered silly or primitive by another. Shared concepts and behaviors - honesty, affection, anger, curiosity, flirtation, disgust, etc. - are often expressed in entirely different ways in different cultures, and this can be extremely difficult or subtle to navigate at first. And, most importantly, some cultural differences are simply incomprehensible to outsiders - and probably always will be. Which means that interacting with any foreign culture requires a) an openness to learning new ways of seeing the world; b) a curiosity about how other people experience life; and c) competent and trusted resources who can help us navigate such issues.

2) And of course the opposite is also true, in that no matter how different, disorienting or even alienating another culture may appear on the surface, there are always good-hearted, compassionate, caring and generous people everywhere who are happy to engage us.

3) Every culture on Earth has at least one dish of food that it unbelievably tasty and defies all expectations. Very often more than one. Again, however, this requires openness and a willingness to venture outside of our comfort zone.

4) Along the same lines, there are unique clothing styles, architecture, art, music, dance, spiritual traditions and so on that, if we allow ourselves to be immersed in them, will awaken profound appreciation for that culture.

5) Other ways of life around the world are, by many measures, superior to the American lifestyle. You will have to experience this yourself to fully appreciate it, but much of what a middle-class American esteems as "quality of life" pales in comparison to what other (even much poorer) cultures have to offer.

6) What an average American considers "poor" is, in material terms, still much wealthier than how the vast majority of the world's population lives. There are also parallels to this in education, information, healthcare, transportation, etc.

7) Nature, spacious environments, solitude, quiet, privacy and even personal space can be extremely hard to come by in many cultures. Where humans have lived and thrived for many thousands of years in close proximity, cultures have adapted to accept the consequences.

8-) In the same vein (and I think likely as a result of the same pressures), individualism is a bit of an anomaly in most other cultures, and a more communal or collective mindset is the norm.

9) Although I may get in hot water for saying this, speaking as a heterosexual male who thought he knew what female "beauty" was all about before leaving the U.S., I was also shaken to my core by the extraordinary range of feminine allure I encountered elsewhere. And I don't mean a routine sort of animal attraction, I mean being brought to breathless tears by the way a woman looked or moved so differently, or by the unique qualities of her voice as she spoke her language, or by the subtle and fluid expressions of her eyes and hands that were equally unique to her culture. Perhaps these are just the result of witnessing something new and different - but I don't think so. I think it is also that "beauty" has its own special, surprising and precious expression everywhere in the world.

Lastly I would encourage you to check out World News From World Newspapers. It's an excellent way to encounter different perspectives on the same issues from all around the world. Very enlightening.

My 2 cents.

Comment from Eric Knight: "To be fair, most Europeans feel Barack Obama is worse than Reagan or even Bush, probably due to expectations in 2008 compared to the malaise they find in 2016."

Actually in global polling Obama remained quite strong, with only China dipping precipitously between 2008 and 2015 (nearly 30 points). European approval dipped less (roughly 12 points on average) over the same period, but still remained above 80% if you take Russia and Greece out of the mix (they were never higher than about 40% from the get-go) and keep Great Britain in the mix. Currently, the "global average" is around 65% approval according to Pew Global. So yes, there was disappointment - though mainly over POTUS continuing the drone strike program. But to say Europeans feel worse about Obama than Reagan or Bush...? The numbers don't support that at all. Take a look at the chart from the link below. Bush's ratings were abysmal...Obama's much better.

7 charts on how the world views President Obama