Much of California is plagued this year by bad air and scant water. The two conditions are not unrelated. A few wet winter storms would help ease both problems, but the underlying situations that helped create the problems may not be fixed by weather.
Poor air quality — the worst is in the Central Valley where residents are warned on some days not to go outside — is exacerbated by drought. However dry, stagnant air isn’t the only problem. California generates a good portion of its own foul air with auto emissions and manufacturing pollution, but some problems come from elsewhere.
According to researchers, polluted air from China is making its way across the Pacific to the U.S., and it is increasing air pollution problems on the West Coast in particular.
In an ironic twist, about one-fifth of China’s pollution can be attributed to the country’s export industry making goods sent mostly to the United States.
According to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month, China’s export industry was responsible for about 20% of the pollutants Chinese industry sent into the atmosphere in 2006. That accounts for at least one day’s worth of pollution in California that exceeded U.S. health standards for air quality.
The nine scientists in the U.S., China and United Kingdom who conducted the research point out that companies seeking to avoid stricter air quality controls and more expensive labor in the U.S. Europe and Japan do not escape global impacts by manufacturing in China.
“Outsourcing production to China does not always relieve consumers in the United States — or, for that matter, many countries in the Northern Hemisphere — from the environmental impacts of air pollution,” researchers wrote.
“Rising emissions produced in China are a key reason global emissions of air pollutants have remained at a high level during 2000–2009 even as emissions produced in the United States, Europe, and Japan have decreased,” researchers concluded.
Steve Davis, a scientist at UC-Irvine and co-author of the study, called it a “boomerang effect.”
“As much as one-third of Chinese air pollution is related to goods that are exported from China, and some of that pollution blows across the Pacific,” Davis said on his website.
“We find that, while outsourcing of manufacturing from the U.S. to China has probably improved air quality in the eastern U.S. (where such manufacturing was previously located), it therefore worsens air quality in the western U.S.”
Davis said he hoped research like this would help show the need for international agreements to limit air pollution.
“We need to move beyond placing blame for who’s creating these emissions and realize that we all have a common interest in reducing the pollution,” Davis said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Central Valley Areas Hardest Hit
The hardest-hit regions for both bad air and low levels of potable water are in the Central Valley.
This winter — the most polluted on record in the Central Valley — the air is so full of dangerous breathable particles that residents have been warned to stay indoors on particularly polluted days.
One of the most dangerous forms of air pollution is fine particles — known as PM2.5 — that can lodge in the lungs. According to the World Health Organization, chronic exposure to air with high levels of PM2.5 can contribute to developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. PM2.5 was designated as a carcinogen in October.
The concentration of fine particulates in the air has risen to nearly three times the federal standard this winter, according to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Winter storms, which finally brought rain to California last week, were expected to improve the air quality in much of the state, but the amount — and quality — of drinking water is not expected to improve much.
Greater Strain on Areas With Contaminated Water
With California experiencing its driest year on record, the state Department of Public Health identified 17 communities — mostly in the Central Valley — with particularly compromised water systems.
State officials said they would provide extra support and guidance in reducing water consumption and generating more potable water in these communities, most of them rural.
“As the severe drought continues, we’re working with impacted communities to identify alternative water sources and additional resources,” said DPH Director Ron Chapman in a prepared statement.
For areas already coping with contaminated water, the drought is particularly problematic, according to Linda Rudolph, co-director of the Center for Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute and former deputy director at the California Department of Public Health.
“Most of us are used to having clean, safe drinking water come right out of the faucet. We do not worry about how to get water to cook or to wash our hands with. Unfortunately, even before the drought, this was not the case in some California communities,” Rudolph wrote in a guest editorial last week in the Sacramento Bee.
“In parts of Fresno and Tulare counties, mostly due to fertilizer runoff, communities are already either drinking contaminated water, paying more to connect to other sources of water, or drinking unhealthy alternatives like soda. Seventeen rural California communities are already in danger of running out of water in the next few months. The drought puts even more strain on these communities; it also puts all of us at risk. And it has real impacts on our health,” Rudolph wrote.
Rudolph said state policy makers should work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and consider the health and environmental implications of desalination projects, reusing water and water transfer projects.
“We have seen a little bit of rain over the last week,” Rudolph wrote. “That is a very good thing. But a few drops of water today won’t solve tomorrow’s problems. Let’s use this emergency to push for long-term solutions that protect both water and health.”