It’s official: California cities rank among the worst air quality places in the country. And a new report says that while vehicle emissions have been a long-time contributor, wildfires are a growing threat to air health.
The report, compiled annually by the American Lung Association, studies air quality across the country. He found that 98% of Californians live in an area with unhealthy air, a huge jump from the nationwide average of around 40%.
Every California county in the report received a failing air quality rating except for Yolo and Humboldt.
Will Barrett, senior director of clean air advocacy for the American Lung Association, says transportation emissions from gas-guzzling vehicles are the driving factor in ozone pollution, which Barrett describes as having a similar effect to that of “sunburn on the lungs”.
“What it does is it puts us at increased risk for respiratory problems, cardiovascular problems,” he said. “It’s everything from increased breathing difficulties to asthma attacks and even heart problems that worsen due to unhealthy air.”
But Barrett says the particulate pollution spikes can be attributed to the massive wildfires seen across California in recent years.
The Sacramento area is an unfortunate case study of these impacts. It ranked fifteenth in a list of the 25 most polluted places to live for daily particulate pollution (and notably all but three counties on that list were in California).
Tim Cromartie, policy director for environmental advocacy organization Environmental Justice League, says the county’s climate is partly to blame. While smoke from wildfires has consistently contributed to deteriorating air quality, areas like Sacramento, which are drier and farther from the ocean, can suffer lasting impacts even after a fire extinguishes. fire.
“The air doesn’t move as easily as it does in coastal communities,” he said. “We can get a little windy at times, but whatever particles or contaminants are in the air, they’re going to stay here for a while.”
Barrett says these warmer weather conditions are also making it easier for ozone pollution to form across the state.
“We have tens of millions of people and tens of millions of cars causing a lot of pollution that turns into ozone on these hot, sunny days,” he said.
According to Cromartie, it’s important to remember that the impacts of poor air quality are not always felt in the same way. Many of the worst-affected neighborhoods are populated by low-income communities of color.
The report, which says people of color are 61% more likely to live in an area with poor air quality, is proof of that.
“We weren’t surprised to see that,” Cromartie said. “If the air quality in general is poor, it will be even worse in poorer neighborhoods, which will be dominated by communities of color.”
But even though California ranks first for its polluted air, Barrett says there’s some positive news in the report. The state has seen general reductions in ozone pollution, which often comes from transportation.
He says stricter transport guidelines could have an impact.
“The main driver of progress on ozone has been California’s major clean car standards, cleaning up the truck fleet,” he said. “These types of programs [are] really a dent in transport pollution.
But Barrett says more emission reduction policies are needed to improve air quality in California. He noted that efforts have been made to replace heavy-duty trucks used for transportation with zero-emission fleets, as trucks contribute more than half of all vehicle emissions in California.
Other initiatives to reduce sprawling development could also help reduce pollution caused by transportation.
“The more we develop communities for cars, the more we pollute the air,” he said. “Conversely, the more we build communities that give people real options, meaningful options that can save them from having to drive for every little trip – that’s a win.”
While state action is needed, Barrett says individuals can play a role by turning to greener devices whenever possible. He cited leaf blowers as a particularly bad contributor to unhealthy air, saying that running a gas-powered leaf blower for an hour equals the emissions equivalent of driving from Los Angeles to Denver.
Overall, Cromartie says it’s important for California to tackle poor quality holistically — and as quickly as possible.
“The reality is that wildfires alone have proven that what happens in rural areas definitely affects what happens in cities in terms of air quality,” he said. “And so we need to take a comprehensive … more holistic approach to all environmental policies.”
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