The American Lung Association has released its “State of the Air 2014” report, ranking the ozone and particlulate pollution levels of U.S. metropolitan areas. As most Tulare and Kings County residents would probably guess, this area didn’t fare well.
“The San Joaquin Valley remains home to some of the most polluted air in the United States, in terms of both ozone and particulate pollution,” according to the report. “Emissions from the transportation sector are a leading source of pollution in the region, bringing significant lung health burdens.”
According to the report, the Visalia-Porterville-Hanford area has the second highest ozone pollution in the nation, behind only the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside metropolitan area. Rounding out the top (bottom?) five were other Central California areas: #3 Bakersfield, #4 Fresno-Madera and #5 Sacramento-Roseville. Modesto-Merced was ranked #7.
The particlulate pollution rankings were separated into two categories, short-term (the number of bad ozone pollution days) and annual, with the Visalia-Porterville-Hanford area once again being ranked second on both lists, behind only Fresno-Madera. Rounding out both lists of the five most particle-polluted areas were: Bakersfield, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside and Modesto-Merced.
The rankings look bad on paper, but what does that really mean for those of us who live in Tulare and Kings Counties?
“Both those forms of air pollution are associated with all kinds of problems,” said Tulare County Health Officer Karen Haught, M.D., who said that the county has 137 heart disease-related deaths per 100,000, compared with 106 in the state.
Haught explained that ozone is a formed by the effects of sunlight on different gasses, such as those created by cars and power plants, adding that the problem is worse in the summer.
Particlulate pollution is the level of fine particles in the air. “They are the things that can get down into your lungs,” Haught said, listing gas, soot and exhaust as the main sources. “To some extent, particle pollution happens naturally in things like dust,” she added.
“On days that are bad, please limit your physical activity outside,” she cautioned. “And limit your use of cars so you don’t contribute to the pollution on those days.”
“People who do outdoor exercise have to be aware of the season,” said A.M. Aminian, M.D., medical director of the Allergy Institute, which has offices in Visalia and Fresno. “If you like running in the morning, you have to be aware that mornings aren’t good for allergies – but mornings are better in the summer, with air pollution worse from noon to 6pm. You have to know when to be outdoors and when not to be outside.”
Those who believe that they are better off running anyway are making a mistake, according to Aminian. “They are going to be hurting themselves because they’re just going to be inhaling all those particulates,” he said.
Pollutants can result in stuffy or runny noses and watery eyes, symptoms that are like allergies, according to Aminian, who added that people in the area who have allergies have additional problems because of the pollution here.
“This area is closed on three sides by mountains,” Aminian said. “Whatever comes here doesn’t have an outlet.” He added that the weather is not helping the situation. “When we have any wet weather, a lot of the pollution can be washed off, but in a year like this year when we don’t have any rain, people have more problems. More people this year are sick.
“The air is so bad here that we’re in the top four in asthma deaths,” he continued. “One in five children has asthma here.”
Aminian estimates that air pollution in the area is about 85% the result of Mother Nature and 15% manmade. In focusing on the 15% “that we can do something about,” he said education and regulation can improve the quality of our air. He added that things were getting better here, “but the Mother Nature part is not cooperating.”
Haught showed some optimism about air quality in the South Valley. “If you compare (the numbers in the report) to previous rates, they are better,” she said. “The air is improving over time.” She credits the California Air Resources Board for creating “more stringent” regulations to decrease air pollution levels.
The American Lung Association report also claims some “key successes” in the Valley. “Since the 2000 report, unhealthy ozone days have fallen by 37% in the region. Unhealthy spikes in particulates have fallen by 50% since the 2004 report. While seven of the eight counties fail in the annual particulate category, an 18% drop has been reported for the region since the 2004 report. Passenger vehicle and diesel engine controls have helped reduce emissions regionally.”
To continue to lower air pollution levels in the Valley, the association offers four “key solutions”: maintaining and enhancing wood burning controls; community planning focused on walking, biking and transit alternatives to driving; the use of zero emission vehicles and fuels; and supporting sustainable zero and near-zero emission freight technologies.