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California residents at the forefront of the fight for cleaner air

Southern California might be famous for its sunshine, sandy beaches and palm trees but the region is also synonymous with heavy traffic and tailpipe pollution.

With countless policies promoting cleaner gasoline, car-pooling, public transportation, and electric vehicles, California has been at the forefront of the fight for cleaner air, a fight that has recently been compounded by raging wildfires.

But now, environmentally-conscious residents can make an extra contribution to improving air quality by installing roofing shingles on their homes which are loaded with smog-absorbing granules that take pollution out of the air and convert it into the water, according to the company that makes them.

The granules in the roofing material, which contain a photocatalytic compound that absorbs nitrogen oxides – also known as NOx, the main contributor to smog and acid rain, are made by U.S manufacturing company 3M Co at their plant in Corona, California.

“All of our roofing granules have a coating on them and with the smog-reducing granules it’s just a different kind of coating, it’s a photocatalytic coating. And how that works is when it is on the roof, the sunlight actually activates that coating and it takes any smog particles, so any NO, NOx type particles that have landed on the roof, and during that photocatalytic cycle with the sun hitting it it transforms that NOx smog particle into a water-soluble salt ion. And then through the simple … dew cycle we have during normal weather and rainfall it washes off,” explained Angie Byars, 3M’s Corona plant manager.

The granules are made by crushing and grinding rock from a nearby quarry. Once the rock is crushed into the appropriate granule-size, the photocatalytic coating is added and glazed on to the granules in a kiln.

Once the granules come out of the kiln and samples have gone through quality control tests at an on-site lab, they land on a conveyor belt and are loaded on to a truck for distribution.

In the city of Westminster, Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, 41-year-old homeowner James Anthony Martinez is having a new roof fitted on to his house. Martinez said choosing the smog-absorbing shingles for his roof was a ‘no-brainer.’

“Growing up in Southern California, I’ve been living here my whole life, air quality and pollution have always been an issue. And you’ve got to get your roof replaced anyway, there’s not one single person that is not going to have to replace their roof, but if you can use this kind of innovation that has pollution-fighting granules in it, you can help do your part,” he said.

“I mean granted it’s one roof, but if it starts here and if everybody else starts doing it and it becomes the norm, then who knows what the end result will be,” he added.

Californians are certainly environmentally conscious. They now buy more than half of all electric vehicles sold in the United States, and the state’s auto-pollution policies have provided a model being adopted around the world.

But even so, tailpipe pollution here is going up, not down, despite billions of dollars spent by one of the most environmentally progressive governments on earth. This has less to do with energy or environmental policies and more with decades-old urban planning decisions that made California – and especially Los Angeles – a haven for sprawling development of single-family homes and long commutes, according to state officials.

So what causes smog and why does it affect the Los Angeles area in particular?

“Because of the sunlight and the weather conditions here in Los Angeles things sort of cook in the air, they sit over the basin and literally like a pot on the stove sit and cook in the sunlight and new pollutants are formed and there are new chemical reactions that take place. So it is not only the direct emissions from vehicles, gasses and particles, but also new chemistry that takes place in the air,” explained Ed Avol, a professor at the University of Southern California‘s (USC) Department of Preventative Medicine and the Director its Environmental Health Division.

“There’s a growing interest in sort of thinking about how we might mechanically clean up the air by (using) building surfaces, roofing shingles or towers that maybe suck in the outside air and vacuum it clean and then dump it back out … the big questions is not so much whether they can work because we can demonstrate them that they do work in a short, defined, quiet, closed space, the question is really in the open air, with the volumes of air that we have, of whether it makes any, you know, meaningful difference,” he added.

Transportation is tied with power generation as America’s leading source of carbon dioxide emissions, at 28 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – and it takes top billing in California, at about 40 percent. It makes up a smaller share in the rest of the world, where car ownership is lower but likely to grow.

(Production: Omar Younis)

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