Driven by a lingering high-pressure system, a thick blanket of smog, smoke and pollution has been hanging over the valley for roughly three weeks, sending fine particulate matter to its unhealthiest monitored level and driving up emergency room visits.
Meteorologists from the National Weather Service in Hanford, however, said that the smog should start clearing up when the high-pressure system — which has trapped pollution in the valley since mid-December — begins to move out of the area.
“[The air quality] shouldn’t get any worse than what it is today,” meteorologist Kevin Lynott said Wednesday. “Today and yesterday were definitely the worst, and I think, come Saturday, it will be back at reasonable levels.”
Even though current particulate matter levels have achieved the unhealthiest possible score designated by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District — something the agency says requires local schools to bar kids from athletics, recess and outside physical education — air district officials said Wednesday that pollution isn’t that bad, thanks to steps taken to reduce emissions.
“Ironically, the pollution put into the air is at a record low,” Air District spokeswoman Cassandra Melching said. “Valley residents have done such a good job of updating devices and trying to be more cautious of what they’re putting out, but because of this high pressure system, it just sits here at ground level.”
And it’s raising serious health concerns.
Particle pollution has been linked to cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks, respiratory issues like asthma attacks and bronchitis, and even premature death, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The fine particulate matter known at PM 2.5, which is about one-10th the diameter of a human hair, can get into the bloodstream and lungs and cause health issues later in life.
“The quality of the air in general in Bakersfield is not good, and with the recent fires, even worse,” said Dr. Ralph Garcia-Pacheco, a pulmonary and critical care doctor at Kern Medical. “The pollution is the big problem. It can lead to exacerbation of chronic underlying respiratory disease and asthma.”
He’s urging people to stay inside as much as possible on days with poor air quality.
For the last three weeks, Kern Medical Center, Bakersfield Memorial Hospital and Adventist Health Bakersfield have all noted upticks in emergency room visits for respiratory-related ailments.
Emergency department visits at the Bakersfield Memorial Hospital adult ER doubled from about 100 patients a day to more than 200 complaining of respiratory issues, said hospital spokeswoman Jessica Neeley.
Pediatric intakes in the emergency department saw a respiratory ailment spike of about 150 to 175 patients a day, up from the average of about 100.
“It’s a lot of children wheezing, a lot of runny noses, coughs, colds and high fevers,” said Jenny Wilson, director of nursing operations at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.
She described this as the worst flu season she’s seen in seven years, an issue she attributes to the combination of a largely ineffective vaccine and recent air quality issues.
“It’s a very social time of year and everybody’s getting sick from everybody else,” Wilson said. “The air quality is just one more cherry on top.”