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We keep improving, but Bakersfield still ranks among the most polluted cities in America

Smog Bakersfield (copy)

Smog hangs low in this view south toward the Tehachapi mountains from the 18th Street parking garage in Bakersfield in this file photo.

The mystery is gone.

The American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" report released Wednesday is not going to surprise a lot of Bakersfield residents — or just about anyone living in the San Joaquin Valley.

Bakersfield and much of the valley, according to the report, are still among the most polluted areas of the country.

"Since our first report in 2000, Bakersfield has seen significant improvement,” said Will Barrett, director of clean air advocacy for the American Lung Association in California.

"But we still have a long way to go," he said.

There are three major categories of air pollution the report focused on: annual particle pollution; short-term, or 24-hour particle pollution; and ozone pollution, a major component of smog.

According to the Lung Association's findings, which, this year, collected data from 2017, 2018 and 2019, metro Bakersfield was the city most polluted by annual particle pollution, microscopic specks of soot that can become lodged in your lungs and can even pass into the blood stream.

On 24-hour particulate matter pollution, Bakersfield was ranked third worst.

And ozone filled the gap, with Bakersfield ranking second worst behind our old rival, Los Angeles.

According to the report, the San Joaquin Valley and California in general continue to face some of the most significant challenges in the United States for the most harmful and widespread types of air pollution.

The health of Californians, nearly all of whom live in a county with a failing grade, the report found, is more urgent and more daunting due to climate change impacts including extreme heat and wildfires that continue to undermine progress.

"California's leading clean air policies have driven significant improvements, but more must be done to ensure that all communities experience the benefits of healthy air," Barrett said. "California must seize current opportunities through the state budget, legislative and agency actions to invest in healthier travel and zero-emission transportation options and infrastructure that leave no community behind."

Seven California cities, besides Bakersfield, appear on all three lists of most polluted cities in the United States for unhealthy ozone days, unhealthy spikes in particle pollution, and for annual particle pollution levels, according to the report. Besides Bakersfield, they include El Centro, Fresno-Madera-Hanford, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Redding-Red Bluff, San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, and Visalia.

"Despite progress over the history of the report, 10 California cities remain on the list of the 25 most ozone-polluted cities in the United States," the report states.

State of the Air 2021 showed many cities with fewer unhealthy ozone days compared with last year’s report, including the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area, which continues to rank as the most ozone-polluted city in the United States.

Bakersfield, Fresno and Visalia round out the top four most ozone-polluted cities in the nation, all of which improved to their fewest number of ozone days since the first “State of the Air” report in 2000.

According to Barrett, over the three-year period studied, Bakersfield dropped to an average of 97.2 ozone days. The record worst was 216 days.

The report also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal.

Across the United States, the report also shows that people of color were 61 percent more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than white people, and three times more likely to live in a county that failed all three air quality grades. The report also finds that climate change made air quality worse and harder to clean up.

"While nearly all Californians are impacted by unhealthy air, we know that low-income communities and communities of color too often face disparities in exposures and negative health outcomes," said Dr. Afif El-Hasan, an asthma physician with Kaiser Permanente, Southern California and a Lung Association board member.

"Greater attention and priority," he said, "must be placed on environmental justice, equitable policies and priority investments that target clean-up where it is needed most."

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.