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Will Fresno ever pass this test? It's another flunking grade for air pollution

Smoky skies, stagnant air means Valley air danger to breathing

Smoke from a Northern California wildfire and Fourth of July fireworks adds to existing air quality and breathing challenges in the central San Joaquin Valley.
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Smoke from a Northern California wildfire and Fourth of July fireworks adds to existing air quality and breathing challenges in the central San Joaquin Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley has made some strides in cleaning the air but continues to rank among the most polluted areas for ozone and soot in California, according to a 2018 American Lung Association report on air quality.

Eight counties — from Stanislaus to Kern — got flunking grades for both ozone and particle pollution in the association’s State of the Air 2018 report card released Wednesday.

Among metropolitan areas nationwide, Bakersfield was the most-polluted for short-term particle pollution. Visalia was the second-most polluted and Fresno ranked third in the latest report. Fairbanks, Alaska was the most polluted. Particle pollution, microscopic specks of dust, soot and chemicals, spikes in the fall and winter in the Valley.

Asthma sufferer Fawn Olvera, 68, of Clovis, wears a mask to go outside and uses a nebulizer machine to inhale her medicine to help her breathe in the Valley's polluted air.

The Fresno, Visalia and Bakersfield metropolitan areas again ranked high for ozone, a summertime pollutant. Bakersfield ranked second-smoggiest and Visalia ranked third. Fresno was the fourth-most ozone-polluted. Los Angeles once again ranked as smoggiest, a record it has held for the entire 19 years of the association’s reporting. The latest report covered the years 2014-16.

There was some good news for the Valley: Despite its high ranking for particle pollution, the Fresno-Madera metropolitan area had its fewest days ever for short-term particle pollution over the past two decades, the association said. And Modesto-Merced had improvements in particle pollution, according to the report. Fresno County also improved for ozone pollution with fewer unhealthy air days, the association said. And Modesto-Merced had its lowest level of unhealthy ozone days.

Recognition of improvements in air quality was welcome news, said Jamie Holt, a spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. "Air quality in the Valley is cleaner than it ever has been and most Valley residents are breathing air that meets the federal air quality standards," she said.

But the lung association said the Valley's soot pollution remains among the worst in the nation. And it noted that historic wildfires in 2017 were not captured in the report. Days of unhealthy air that plagued the Fresno area at the end of December also were not represented.

The association's report "captures a fortunate spell," said Kevin Hall, a clean air advocate and member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. "What this recent winter episode showed us is our potential is there for the levels to skyrocket," he said.

Pollution affects millions in the San Joaquin Valley, but the Lung Association said it particularly increases the risk for adults and children with lung and heart problems, such as 231,120 adults and 91,838 children with asthma. Small particles can get deep into lungs and affect both the lungs and the heart. Ozone is a corrosive pollutant that can cause chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and worsen asthma symptoms.

The association said climate change continues to contribute to poor air quality, contributing to spikes in ozone in the 2018 report, while wildfires drove higher particle pollution levels in the 2017 report.

Cleaner power plants and more clean-burning vehicles on roads contribute to better ozone and particle pollution readings, the Lung Association said, and the federal Clean Air Act and California’s authority to regulate vehicle emissions should be preserved.

But clean-air standards could change. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said earlier this month that he would revoke Obama-era emission limits and establish national standards, threatening California’s waiver that allows for stricter emission rules. California has vowed to stick with its standard. Twelve other states also have clean-car rules that reduce tailpipe emissions.

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter
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