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To improve the Valley’s poor air quality, focus must be to reduce vehicles on the road

As a practicing pulmonologist, I specialize in helping my patients maintain healthy lungs — not always the easiest task here in Fresno. What drives me to fight for healthy air is that I have witnessed firsthand the harm that our poor air quality causes to my patients, local families, and our community.

Year after year, Fresno ranks among the most polluted cities in the United States. Recently, the American Lung Association released its 2019 State of the Air report and — once again — Fresno ranks at the top of the list for worst air quality. We are listed in the top 10 for the number of unhealthy days of ozone and particle pollution and ranked No. 1 in the country for year-round particle pollution.

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Fresno Bee file

We all know when the air is unhealthy. We can feel it. We can see it. I can see it in my practice when I get calls from patients with COPD and asthma. Although we have made progress in cutting pollution, it is still threatening our lungs and our collective health.

So what’s driving this? Driving is a big part of it.

Numerous factors have contributed to our air quality challenges, but transportation pollution is by far the biggest problem. Over 80 percent of the smog-and-particle-forming oxides of nitrogen (NOx) in the Valley come from mobile sources, as do 20 percent of fine particles. Half of our carbon pollution comes from transportation sources running on fossil fuels — think trucks and cars.

I recently helped host the fourth annual Air Pollution and Climate Change Symposium at UCSF-Fresno to bring health experts, local health professionals and elected leaders together to dig in on our air pollution and climate burdens. Participants of this conference were surprised to learn that air pollution in the Valley can increase the risk of asthma, exacerbate COPD, heart disease and strokes.

Therefore, as a doctor, I feel it is also my responsibility to speak out about climate change impacts to our air. In the past few years, we have seen growing evidence of this in the form of state, national and global scientific research, not to mention our historic droughts, wildfires, and extreme heat events — all of which contribute to the particle and ozone pollution that is harming my patients and our community.

Unfortunately, while other sectors have been able to cut pollution, climate pollution from California transportation sources has gone up along with our miles driven and increased fuel consumption. Our state’s landmark “Sustainable Communities” law to build healthier, more sustainable communities is 10 years old and we hoped it would spark real changes in healthier land use and transportation decisions.

Sadly, a state report issued in 2018 highlighted that our passenger vehicle travel and carbon emissions are “increasing and going in the wrong direction” and would continue to do so “without significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded, and built.”

In a nutshell, we can’t afford to build transportation projects that increase driving and pollution at the expense of projects that create healthier communities for all of our residents, and especially those without access to parks, sidewalks, bike lanes and high-quality transit.

When we build for health, people of all ages and abilities will be able to move around safely and conveniently. We can expect better health outcomes as people have access to walking and biking opportunities that don’t compete with high-speed traffic.

Land use and transportation decisions are health decisions. If communities were designed in ways that encourage my patients to bike and walk more, I would expect to see improvements in cardiovascular, respiratory and mental health and reductions in obesity, diabetes, cancers and social isolation among seniors and youths.

As a pulmonologist, I encourage my patients to lead healthy and active lives, but those efforts can only go so far if our air quality continues to be a problem, and if it remains difficult to get out of our cars and take advantage of physically active travel.

All levels of government must take this seriously and work together for solutions that build health back into our communities.

Jose Joseph-Vempilly is a pulmonologist practicing in Fresno and a volunteer Doctor for Climate Health with the American Lung Association in California.
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