Swimming In Smog

Swimming In Smog

Swimming in smog has long been a problem for swimmers in Southern California.

Swimmers who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Southern California can recall how badly their lungs hurt during and after workouts and competitions, especially when the summer smog used to hang low in the sky and descend on the pool decks and the landscape from Orange County to Pasadena.

My lungs used to hurt so badly after hours in the water,” remembered Steven Munatones.  “When I started swimming in the 1960’s, my eyes used to hurt because no one used goggles in workouts and we all used to see circular rainbows around street lights and car headlights going home.  But then the smog during the 1970’s used to seem to be an even greater problem.”

Dial forward four decades and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  

Without a doubt, the pandemic was terrible because of all the deaths, hospitalizations, stress, worry, lockdowns and stay-at-home quarantines in place. But, there was also a sudden, noticeable change in the environment, both in the air and marine. With the lack of ground transportation – at least in Southern California – the skies seemed to turn bluer and brighter.  The skies were definitely luer than I have ever seen since I was born,” said Munatones.  “The skies above Huntington Beach were so clear; I could see from the mountains to Catalina Island.  That was something that would have been impossible back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, especially in the summer. While everyone was in quarantine, the streets seemed quieter and the air cleaner and clearer.”

It wasn’t only swimmers who noticed the perceivable change. Many people commented on the lack of smog and hazy air that notoriously hung over the Los Angeles basin.

But despite the obvious change in the air quality during the pandemic, 2020 still saw 157 days out of 365 when the ozone pollution exceeded the U.S. federal health standards [see link below].   In addition, 2020 saw five out of the seven largest wildfires in California state history occur, burning a total of 2.49 million acres or a little over 10,000 square kilometers – or larger than the combined area of the states of Delaware and Rhode Island.  Munatones said, “So even when we started to come out of lockdowns and quarantines, the air quality due to smoke was suffocating in many places from San Francisco Bay to Lake Tahoe.”

So what can swimmers do?  Swimming in the early mornings helps a lot and swimming along the coastline helps on some days depending on which way the wind is blowing.

Swimmers often campaign for clean water, but many swimmers in California live in areas with unhealthy levels of pollution. “Of course, on the other hand, here in Southern California we can swim year-round in relatively mild temperatures and relatively warm waters, so we can’t complain about too much,” summed up Munatones.

To understand the World’s Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index, visit here.

Photo by Thomas R. Cordova for the Long Beach Post News.

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Steven Munatones