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Robert Phalen tests our modern air

AAAS member Robert Phalen is director of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at the University of California-Irvine. (Photo: Rebecca Fairley Raney)

It was nearly 40 years ago when the mess with the oil embargo started the whole thing -- the fear of killer smog that led to the hiring of Robert Phalen to help California create policies to regulate the stuff in the air.

Now that the policies are in place, Phalen, a founder and co-director of a major smog research lab, has one more thing to say about it: The air is just too clean. And he's pretty sure that it's not good for the children, whose lungs need a few irritants to learn how to ward them off.

"Modern air," Phalen says, "is a little too clean for optimum health."

These days, as his Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory is moving into areas like childhood asthma, a good part of Phalen's conversation deals with the unintended effects of well-intentioned policies.

Phalen darts around his office at the University of California at Irvine while he talks. He starts the conversation by running a modest tour of the dozens of binders that hold his publications, then he grabs a piece of chalk to outline the discussion on the chalkboard behind his chair. He never stays in the chair for long.

"There was a period of three months I didn't open my mail," he says.

That was the period after he was pulled out of a blissful postdoctoral post in which he was studying lung modeling for the Inhalation Toxicology Research Institute in New Mexico. His adviser's adviser -- or Yoda, as Phalen called him -- suggested that he take this new research post in California.

At that moment, the oil embargo had spurred a panic in California that went well beyond the gas lines. Policymakers were planning to move from oil to coal for energy. But there was a problem with that solution, based upon anecdotal evidence.

The authorities in California were troubled by an event known as The Great Smog of 1952. It happened in London during a cold winter, when people were burning more coal than usual. When a four-day inversion layer settled over the city, thousands of people died. Cows reportedly choked to death in the fields.

Here's why the authorities were panicked: the London event occurred over a period of four days, and in Los Angeles, inversion covers the city for 340 days per year.

So Phalen settled down to work. He set up shop in an office that looks more like a construction trailer than a faculty building.

The lab's initial finding: There's no synergism between coal and ozone, which is plentiful in Southern California. In fact, the air chemistry triggered a lung defense that lessened the injury to the bronchial tree.

The state had been considering scrubbing the air, but policymakers scrapped the idea, based on the science. That decision, Phalen says, has saved $100 to $200 per month in utility bills for each household in California.

Other research led to the re-routing of traffic during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles to lessen the impact of ozone on athletes, as well as the banning of lead gasoline.

Phalen has no qualms with those policies. But lately, he's been critical of the idea of setting standards on some emissions that might put truck drivers out of business. And he's not convinced that the science justifies the fear-mongering over climate change.

In the time since Phalen started his doctoral research in aerosol physics at the University of Rochester, he has made a dizzying tour of academic appointments, publications, professional memberships, and seats on federal advisory panels. He has received awards from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the International Metallurgical Association, and the California Biomedical Research Association.

But the panel that really stands out in his mind was put together by daytime talk show host Oprah Winfrey. In the late 1980s, Phalen agreed to go on her show with animal rights activists. The way he understands it, he was the only scientist who was willing to sit on the panel.

During that period, when Phalen was dealing with controversy over animal research, his perception of his role started to change.

"My most important role in science is causing trouble and controversy," he said.

As he spoke, a burst of fresh ocean breeze blew into the office.

"See," he says. "The air is too clean."