DIAMOND BAR, Calif. – It’s a site the public rarely sees—the inside of South Coast AQMD’s research laboratory in Diamond Bar.

Each of these scientists plays a crucial role in cleaning up the air we breathe everyday.

"There’s about 40 people who work in the laboratory, but we also have people who work in the field, who collect various types of samples to bring it back to the laboratory," said Dr. Jason Low, the agency's assistant deputy executive officer in the science and technology department.

There are more than 40 air quality monitoring stations across Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties collecting data on ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and air toxics.

The agency says the two biggest air quality problems in our region are ground level smog and fine particulates—microscopic droplets or solids that are so small, they can be inhaled and cause health problems.  

Scientists use powerful electron microscopes to magnify samples, some just half the size of a human hair and identify what elements make up that particle.

"It can look for a pollutant that’s maybe the size of one water droplet in an Olympic size pool," Dr. Low said.

One way the agency collects samples is with filters. The samples then get mixed with a liquid that is heated up to 5,000 degrees, about the temperature of the sun.

"What it essentially does is splits apart anything in that solution to the atomic level and then the instrument itself will measure the amount of the pollutant or metal that was inside that sample," Dr. Low said.

While the agency admits Southern California has the worst air quality in the nation, South Coast AQMD's leader says progress is being made.

"Over the 70 years we’ve been addressing air quality, our population has doubled. Our vehicles have more than tripled and in spite of all that, the air quality has actually improved," said Wayne Nastri, South Coast AQMD's executive officer.

He says the local factories, refineries, and power plants that were once significant sources of air pollution are no longer the problem. Cars are also running cleaner as car-makers move toward zero emissions.

"Most of our pollution nowadays is coming from what we call mobile sources...Planes, trucks, ships, heavy duty trucks," Nastri said.

South Coast AQMD officials say the communities surrounding those major shipping corridors are getting the brunt of the pollution.  

Two years ago, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 617. It provides resources to tackle air quality problems from a community standpoint.

"What we have to do under AB 617 is really try to identify those disadvantaged communities, work with the communities at the very specific level and identify what are the plans that we can do to improve air quality in those areas," Nastri said.

The three focus areas chosen in Southern California in 2018 were Wilmington/Carson/West Long Beach, San Bernardino/Muscoy, and Boyle Heights/East LA/West Commerce. In July, South Coast AQMD began installing air monitoring stations in those communities.

"We’ve got a big challenge for us ahead in 2023 meeting the 1997 ozone standard of 80 parts per billion," Nastri said.

In other words, cutting the smog in our region almost in half and they’ll need everyone’s help to do it.

The agency doesn’t have authority to regulate mobile sources, but officials are working with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and have awarded millions of dollars to Daimler and Volvo to develop zero emission heavy-duty trucks.

"If we can change how our products are delivered to the cleanest, most efficient way, we will have a tremendous impact on reaching our clean air goals," Nastri said.

South Coast AQMD launched a mobile app that lets the public track air quality in their area and will soon offer air quality predictions up to 48 hours in advance. 

For more information, or to download the air quality tracking app, click here.