Clearing a Path Through the Smog

The thumbnail summary of California’s air quality is abysmal. Los Angeles and Bakersfield have the worst air quality in the nation, according to the annual State of the Air report by the American Lung Association. On the county grading scale, 37 of California’s 58 counties get an F in air quality.

“California is unique,” Bonnie Holmes-Gen of the American Lung Association of California said, in explaining why air pollution is so bad in this state.

“Our large population, combined with our sunny days,” help foul the air, she said.  “Plus you see a lot of diesel emissions at our ports, and a lot of diesel because of our agriculture. There are geographic elements, where the San Joaquin Valley is like a big bowl that holds the smog. And of course, there has been a large increase in vehicle miles traveled. People do love their cars in California.”

But if you go beyond the state’s grim air-pollution standing, it’s clear that some air-quality measurements have improved in California, Holmes-Gen said.

“You have to look at all of the data,” she said. “There has been pretty dramatic ozone reduction in the Fresno area and the upper parts of the Valley. Los Angeles is a big success story, in terms of particle pollution. And there has been a similar reduction in ozone in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Beyond the big-trouble areas, across the entire state, the air’s getting a little clearer, she said.

“I actually consider this State of the Air as a good report card for the state,” Holmes-Gen said. “Most areas are showing improvements all across California, except for the lower part of the Valley.”

The levels of year-round particle pollution are going down across the state, she said, in part because of tightened diesel regulations, in part because of efforts to cut down on wood-burning fireplaces.

“You’re not going to see improvement just looking at the grades, to see improvement you have to see the numbers,” she said. For instance, the number of unhealthy air days in the state is down. But at the same time, she added, those F grades are there for a reason.

“Our report doesn’t grade on a curve,” Holmes-Gen said. “People can literally die from short-term particle pollution. You have to have air quality that meets the standard.”

The take-home message, she said, is that air quality in California is poor and  there’s a lot to be done, but at the same time, all of the state’s diesel and wood-burning regulations have made a difference, according to Holmes-Gen.

“I think the [California Air Resources] board and the [San Joaquin] Valley Air Pollution Control District have turned the corner,” she said. “I mean, we still have another decade of rules to implement. It’s going to take a decade to implement these air-quality laws. It’s just going to take some time.”


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