Under the skin of Orange County

MONTREAL (CUP) — It’s a “cold” January morning — the temperature dipped to 10 degrees Celsius overnight. That’s forgotten during the day, as the palm trees sway in a warm Santa Ana breeze beside bird-of-paradise flowers that bloom year-round. There are heaps of fuchsia bougainvilleas spilling over green vines onto patios beside the pools and hot tubs in every backyard. This is Orange County, the land of expansive beaches, string bikinis and eternal summer.

Thanks to the television show The O.C., Orange County has become a place known the world over. The stereotypes created by the media are partially true, but the idyllic image of the county is grossly exaggerated. Here’s how.

Picture prefect

Though represented as a single entity, Orange County is in fact an overpopulated amalgam of tens of cities connected by 10-lane freeways. The California Demographic Research Unit estimates the 2004 population of Orange County to be 3,017,300. That’s about one-tenth of Canada’s population, crammed into a single suburban county.

Michelle Moon Lee, now an architecture and computer science student at Brown University, has spent 15 of her 20 years in Orange County, which she calls “suburbia hell.” Although she has come to dislike her home county, Lee has enjoyed countless days sunning herself by the ocean and body boarding in the waves. “I don’t think many people can deny the greatness of having a beach 15 minutes from home,” she said.

Orange County’s reputation for beauty and perfect weather is largely unchallenged. Even those who dislike the county enjoy the year-long warmth and sunshine. But there is an ugly story behind the beautiful scenery that most don’t acknowledge.

Both the air and the water in O.C. are terribly polluted. Every year, over 1,600 people die early from smog-related illnesses in the Los Angeles-Orange County region, according to South Coast Air Quality Management. The O.C. had 53 days in 2001 above the state 24-hour standard for respirable particle matter. Short-term exposure to such matter can result in aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory illness, added stress to the heart and lungs, and damaged cells in the respiratory system.

Air pollution remains a problem, despite being reduced since the ’90s. The South Coast Air Basin traps smog and air pollution, making it virtually impossible to breathe clean air in the O.C. Nevertheless, inhabitants of the county seem to be doing very little to help the problem.

Gas-guzzling SUVs clog the freeways, in spite of record-breaking high oil prices. A recently passed California tax break qualifies almost every O.C. SUV owner for a rebate of up to $25 thousand.

Despite her love for the county, Natalia Covarrubias recognizes the O.C.’s car culture problem. A 20-year-old biology major at the University of California at San Diego, her parents gave her a brand-new BMW to drive herself around when she turned 16. Covarrubias noted that the size and expense of the average Orange County car isn’t enough to encourage carpooling — the majority of O.C. cars carry only a driver.

The mass-transit system in the O.C. is ineffective. Very few people who can afford to drive bother with walking, biking, carpooling or bussing. Taking a bus in the O.C. is clearly pass


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