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A thick layer of smog is seen above the horizon in Bakersfield as a cyclist cruises by on the Panorama Bluffs.

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Most polluted cities in the U.S.

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Worst air quality

American Lung Association executives delivered perennial bad news Tuesday but with a dose of encouragement: Bakersfield and the San Joaquin Valley still have some of the nation's worst air quality, but there are points of improvement.

Bakersfield-Delano ranked first in the nation for short-term and annual particle pollution, and third in ozone pollution in the Lung Association's "State of the Air 2013" report.

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside had the worst ozone problem in the country, according to the association.

Kern and the seven other counties in the San Joaquin Valley overwhelmingly received Fs on air quality indicators graded by the report, which crunched Environmental Protection Agency data from 2009 to 2011.

San Joaquin County earned the valley's only "pass" grade.

But a report fact sheet noted that six of the counties, including Kern, Tulare and Fresno, had "their fewest ever" unhealthy ozone days. Bakersfield's unhealthy ozone days have dropped 44 percent since from the Lung Association's 1996-1998 data.

Also on the bright side, Kern County had 10 fewer unhealthy particulate days than in last year's report, according to a fact sheet from the Lung Association.

But although the valley has seen a reduction in year-round levels of particle pollution, short-term levels are still problematic, Lung Association officials said.

Short-term particle pollution refers to spikes in pollution inhaled over just a few hours or days and "these represent levels averaged over a 24-hour period," according to the Lung Association.

"All of that shows us that there still is a big concern here and a need to really focus our efforts," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior director of policy and advocacy for the Lung Association in California.

The valley presents particular challenges, including stagnant weather, that make it likely the "most challenging area in the country" in terms of air quality, Holmes-Gen said.

The easy steps to reduce pollution have already been taken and lowering levels further will require "drastically" ratcheting down vehicle emissions, she said.

"There is hope but we need to sustain the efforts to move toward the cleanest possible technologies," Holmes-Gen said.

In a conference call on the report's results, Lung Association administrators praised California for being a leader in clean air efforts.

They simultaneously hammered their point that more needs to be done to improve air quality, including reducing diesel emissions and promoting cleaner vehicles and fuel.

The California Air Pollution Control Officers' Association released its own report on the state's air quality last week.

That report highlighted overall air quality improvements and noted that Kern County and several other counties achieved the eight-hour federal ozone standard last year.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Visit www.lung.org/california to read the American Lung Association's "State of the Air 2013."

Visit www.capcoa.org to see the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association's "2013 California's Progress Toward Clean Air."