In southern California, the buzz these days isn't about the "The Blair Witch Project," the Dodgers' wretched season, or even Madonna's latest hairstyle. It's about something entirely more bizarre: clean air.
To be sure, any discussion of "clean air" here is greeted with skepticism. It's a place where sweeping mountain vistas are often seemingly obscured by a rusty screen door.
Yet the local air-quality board recently announced that there has not been a smog alert yet this summer - the longest Los Angeles has gone without one since recording of pollution levels began in the 1970s.
The brown cloud isn't gone, but it's retreating. Indeed, across the US, cleaner-burning fuels and new regulations are helping to cut down on smog from Sacramento, Calif., to Secaucus, N.J.
Even so, experts say, some of the hardest work lies ahead.
Regional haze is forcing states to seek tough solutions; the South is emerging as a trouble spot. In the end, some say, California's summer of respite might simply be a reminder that smog is only a few hot days away.
"Despite the fact that we're very technologically efficient in air-pollution control, we're still somewhat dependent on the weather," says Jerry Martin of California's Air Resources Board in Sacramento.
The past few months have been a lesson in the link between weather and smog. While California has enjoyed cooler-than-average temperatures for most of the summer, the East has endured hot, dry conditions.
So far, two of the five smoggiest days of the year have occurred in the New York area; none have been in California. By contrast, last year when temperatures here were hotter than normal, the two worst days were in L.A., with 12 "Stage 1" alerts - warnings to restrict activity outdoors.
Generally, hot weather is an indicator of high pressure in the atmosphere, which weakens winds and creates a cap of hot air. In these stagnant conditions, the cap acts like a pressure cooker. "Without breezes to blow that cap away, smog can sit there for days and just cook," says Mr. Martin.
Regardless of weather conditions, though, L.A. officials say the overall trend in alerts has been downward. Gone are the days when the air was seemingly thick enough to ladle and police officers wore gas masks.
The number of Stage 1 alerts has declined steadily from 101 in 1980 to zero so far this year. The city's last Stage 2 alert - a more serious warning - was in 1988.
"It's a significant march toward cleaner air. The trend is irrefutable," says Joe Cassmassi of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles.
Part of the drop can be credited to cleaner-running cars and reformulated gasolines. But hundreds of other smaller changes, from no-leak gas nozzles to rules that took harmful chemicals out of solvents, have also helped.
The result is America's most comprehensive antipollution campaign, copied in part by states like New Jersey and Connecticut. "L.A. is the model," says Jeffrey Clark of the Environmental Protection Agency in Raleigh, N.C. "Northeast states are not as far along as California, but they're doing more than most everywhere else in the country."
For their part, critics don't deny progress, but say there is much farther to go. States are just beginning to coordinate their efforts to fight pollution regionally. And in Southeastern cities such as Atlanta and Richmond, Va., sprawl has meant people are driving further each day, heightening air-quality concerns.
Even in L.A. this year, not all the data are rosy. So far this year, the city has violated the federal health standard - a lower threshold than Stage 1 - 35 times. Houston, which ranks second, had slightly more than half that.
"On the whole, we still experience the nation's worst air," says Todd Campbell of the Coalition for Clean Air in Los Angeles.
That fact is visible from the white-stone perch of Griffith Observatory high above the city. Skeins of smog settle among the gentle folds of the valley like discolored peach fuzz, and the San Gabriel Mountains to the east are swallowed in an opaque fog.
Yet this is an improvement.
"People coming up here at night can see the city lights more spectacularly now," says Anthony Cook, an astronomer who's worked at Griffith for 21 years.
He also gets a crisper look these days at faint objects like the Orion nebula, though that's due mostly to the reduction in light pollution in the past few years.
The key to still-cleaner air, however, may lie just a few miles away. At the foot of the hill, the newly opened subway station is empty. At rush hour, the number of riders can be counted in dozens, not hundreds.
"We have to get people out of their cars," says Mr. Campbell.
There are other concerns - like coal-fed plants and population growth - but most of the talk remains focused on cars. And with some 6 million automobiles plying L.A. roads alone, Campbell says this year's achievements need to be kept in perspective.
"Some congratulations are in order," he says. "But I would be cautious in predicting what this year is really telling us. If people become complacent and think things are solved, we're going to have problems."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society