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California’s unhealthy air rivals worst in nation, according to new study

Eric Riseberg
AP Photo
The skyline is obscured by smoke and haze from wildfires as a tour boat makes its way along the waterfront Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in San Francisco.

It’s official: California cities rank high among places with the worst air quality in the country. And a new report says that while vehicle emissions have already been longtime contributors, wildfires pose a growing threat to the health of air.

The report, compiled annually by the American Lung Association, surveys air quality across the country. It found that 98 percent of Californians live in an area with unhealthy air — a big jump from the country’s average, which is about 40 percent.

Every California county in the report received a failing grade for air quality, except for Yolo and Humboldt.

Will Barrett, senior director of clean air advocacy for the American Lung Association, says that transportation emissions from gas-guzzling vehicles are the driving factor behind ozone pollution, which Barrett describes as having a similar effect as “sunburn on your lungs.”

“What it does is it puts us at greater risk for respiratory issues, cardiovascular issues,” he said. “That's everything from more difficulty breathing to asthma attacks and even heart conditions that are made worse due to unhealthy air.”

But Barrett says spikes in particulate pollution can be attributed to the massive wildfires seen throughout 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 in this list were in California).

Tim Cromartie, policy director for the advocacy organization Environmental Justice League, says that the county’s climate is partially to blame. While wildfire smoke has contributed consistently to worsening air quality, areas like Sacramento that are dryer and further removed from the ocean can see long-lasting impacts even after a fire is put out.

“The air does not move as readily as it does in coastal communities,” he said. “We might occasionally get a little bit of breeze, but whatever particulate matter or contaminants are in the air, they're going to stay here for quite some time.”

Barrett says that these warmer weather conditions also make it easier for ozone pollution to form statewide.

“We've got tens of millions of people and tens of millions of cars that are causing a lot of pollution that forms into ozone on those hot, sunny days,” he said.

According to Cromartie, it’s important to remember that the impacts of poor air quality aren’t always felt equally. Many of the most impacted neighborhoods are populated by lower-income communities of color.

The report, which says that people of color are 61% more likely to live in an area with a failing air quality grade, is proof of that.

“We were not surprised to see that,” Cromartie said. “If air quality in general is bad, it’s going to be even worse in the poorer neighborhoods, which are going to be dominated by communities of color.”

But even as California ranks high for its polluted air, Barrett says that there’s some positive news in the report. The state saw general reductions in ozone pollution, which often comes from transportation.

He says that tighter guidelines around transportation might be having an impact.

“The primary driver of the progress on ozone has been California's leading clean car standards, cleaning up the trucking fleet,” he said. “These types of programs [are] really putting a dent in transportation pollution.”

But Barrett says that more policies to reduce emissions are needed in order to improve California’s air quality. He noted that there have been efforts to replace heavy-duty trucks used for shipping with zero-emissions fleets, since the trucks contribute to over half of all emissions from vehicles in California.

Other initiatives to reduce sprawling development could also help lower pollution caused by transportation.

“The more we develop communities for cars, the more pollution we're putting in the air,” he said. “Conversely, the more we build communities that give people real options, meaningful options that can get them out of having to drive for every small trip — that's a win.”

While state action is needed, Barrett says that individuals can play a part by turning to greener appliances whenever possible. He cited leaf blowers as a particularly bad contributor to unhealthy air, saying that using a gas-powered leaf blower for an hour is the emissions equivalent of driving from Los Angeles to Denver.

Overall, Cromartie says it’s important that California address poor quality holistically — and as quickly as possible.

“The reality is, the wildfires alone have proved that what happens in rural areas definitely affects what goes on in the cities in terms of air quality,” he said. “And so we need to take a global … more holistic approach to all environmental policies.”