Bakersfield has ranked worst, second worst and third worst in the nation for three categories of air quality, shining a light on the community's ongoing potential for health risks associated with breathing poor air, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association in California.
Local air regulators say the valley has made considerable progress to clean up its air, and say the geography and topography of the San Joaquin Valley make Bakersfield particularly vulnerable to smog formation and concentration of particulates when the weather doesn't cooperate.
And while they have suggested in years past that the report makes use of inadequate and disproportionate air pollution measurements and too often overlooks great improvements in the valley's air quality, they have also lauded it for shining a light on a serious and stubborn public health problem.
“We appreciate that although the report is a simplistic view of the complex air quality challenges in the San Joaquin Valley, it did acknowledge the improvement that have been seen over the past few years," said Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
According to the report, California has some of the worst air quality in the nation. But the San Joaquin Valley is, as usual, front and center with Bakersfield, Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, Fresno-Madera and Modesto-Merced all landing in the Top 10 for ozone pollution, short-term and long-term particle pollution. All eight counties in the valley received failing grades.
“Federal and state policies like the Clean Air Act and strong California clean car standards are working. We are improving air quality, but the impacts of climate change are interfering with progress,” Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior director, air quality and climate change, American Lung Association in California, said in the association's news release.
"The reality is California still has unhealthy levels of air pollution in large areas of the state, which puts Californians at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma, COPD and lung cancer. We must continue the life-saving work of cutting air pollution and slowing climate change," she said.
Bakersfield ranked worst in the nation for short-term particle pollution and third-worst for year-round particle pollution. However, the region did see fewer unhealthy air days than last year’s report.
The city ranked second worst nationally for ozone pollution, a summertime pollution problem that creates smog. Bakersfield experienced more days of unhealthy ozone levels compared to last year’s report.
The most populous metro area, Los Angeles, led the nation for ozone pollution, faring worse than it did in the 2017 report.
The State of the Air 2018 report is based on air quality monitoring data collected from 2014 through 2016, the most recent years of quality-assured data available, the Lung Association said in its news release. Effects from the historic wildfires of 2017 were not captured in this year’s report.
"Ozone and particle pollution are especially harmful to children, seniors and those with asthma and other lung diseases. When they breathe polluted air, too often they end up in the doctor’s office, the hospital or the emergency room," Dr. Alex Sherriffs, a Fresno-area physician and member of the San Joaquin Valley air district board, said in an emailed statement.
Climate change is worsening the valley’s air pollution problems, the report said. Warmer temperatures linked to climate change increase the frequency and severity of ozone days and make it harder to reach clean air goals. Climate change is also linked to extreme weather patterns, drought and wildfires, which contribute to increased particle pollution.
Indeed, according to the National Weather Service’s Hanford station, Bakersfield is getting warmer.
The past four years are now among the top-5 warmest years on record for overall year-round average temperatures in Bakersfield.
Fresno has experienced a similar warming effect. The past six years are now the six warmest years on record for Bakersfield's neighbor to the north.
Brian Ochs, a meteorologist at NWS Hanford, said it's no stretch to call it climate change.
"Yes, it does appear pretty likely that's the case," Ochs said. "It's been warming across the United States and this is consistent with what we're seeing.”
The Lung Association’s Holmes-Gen said it’s critical that California continues to lead the nation in the transition away from fossil fuels, especially as the federal government takes steps to roll back clean car standards and other measures.
“Moving to a zero-emission vehicle future will have huge positive impacts on public health and improve the lives of those living with lung disease,” she said.