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California leads the nation in air pollution

by Bob Morris, published

The American Lung Association 2010 State of the Air Report brings the unsettling news that despite major progress in improving air quality, California has some of the unhealthiest air in the nation.

For the top ten cities in the country with the worst air pollution, California cities have 8 out of 10 for ozone (including the top 6), 5 out of 10 for annual particle pollution, and 7 out of 10 for short-term particle pollution. 

Ozone, even at very low concentrations, can be harmful to the lungs and upper respiratory tract and sometimes can lead to permanent lung injury or even death. Particle pollution can make asthma worse and is a serious health hazard for those with existing lung or heart problems.  The elderly are particularly sensitive. 

Not surprisingly, Los Angeles ranks near the top in all three categories of unhealthy air. However, the worst air is in Bakersfield, which is even more unhealthful than Los Angeles. This means Bakersfield is in the unenviable position of having the worst air in the country overall.

Also clustered near the top are Visalia, Fresno, and Hanford, which are in the San Joaquin Valley about 40-60 miles apart.

Overall, the pollution is caused by cars, diesels, refineries, power plants, sea ports – and residential wood burning. Yes, a roaring fire on a good night is enjoyable indeed, but it puts large amounts of particulate matter into the atmosphere. It should also be noted in passing that a roaring fire, while keeping you warm while sitting next to it, will also very efficiently suck all the expensive furnace-heated air in your house right out the chimney. Pellet burning stoves, while more expensive, are much more efficient, and trap pollutants too.

Another cause of the air pollution and nothing can be done to remediate this, is wide hot valleys with stagnant air surrounded by mountains. This traps pollutants, often by inversion layers. The San Joaquin and San Fernando Valleys are prime examples of this.

American Lung Association offers 10 Tips for Cleaner Air, things we can do individually. They include conserving energy, driving less, using CFL bulbs not incandescent, not burning wood in fireplaces or using charcoal in BBQs, driving an EV or hybrid, washing clothes in cold water, buying energy efficient appliances, and more. While these are all sensible ideas, they are consumer-based only (and may not be affordable to some.)

Our air pollution problems are systematic in nature and thus require systemic solutions. One of the primary causes of air pollution is cars and trucks. More cities need workable and usable mass transit, like electric high speed rail and natural gas buses.

Using renewable energy from wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro will cut way down on pollution from energy generation. This includes the substantial amount of energy that cities like Los Angeles currently gets from coal plants in other states.  A smart energy grid will use electricity far more efficiently with much less waste. This means less air pollution.

If California wants to remain a leader in agriculture, industry, and technology, it (among many other things) needs to have clean air. While much progress has been made, for California to have such dismal rankings means much more remains to be done.

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