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Sonoma County gets high marks for good air quality

Sonoma County once again got straight-As on the American Lung Association’s latest air quality report card, which also cited California’s prolonged drought as a factor in fouling the state’s skies.

For the second year in a row, the county went without a single day of ozone or particle pollution exceeding federal standards, according to State of the Air 2015, the lung association’s annual report released Wednesday. Much of the credit can go to the breezy weather that typically blows away bad air.

Only three other coastal counties - Mendocino, Humboldt and Monterey - matched that perfect score, while Lake County came close with a single day of high ozone pollution, just as it did in last year’s report.

Central Valley and Southern California counties also repeated their marks with the highest levels of harmful pollution, as the Los Angeles metropolitan area, despite some improvement, retained its ranking with the nation’s most ozone-fouled air.

Los Angeles County alone averaged 76.7 days a year with unhealthy levels of ozone, or smog, far exceeding the 3.3 days that were graded with an F in the lung association report.

Sonoma and Mendocino counties made national lists of 79 counties with no unhealthy ozone pollution days and 72 counties with no unhealthy particle pollution days.

Jenny Bard, a Santa Rosa-based spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of California, said she welcomed the county’s high marks, but joined other officials in noting that more needs to be done to curb the health impacts of bad air.

“It’s important to recognize that we all are contributing to pollution,” she said.

Pollutants that arise in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Sonoma County, tend to blow east, reaching either Sacramento or the San Joaquin Valley, the latter home to some of the state’s worst air.

Clean-air counties “absolutely contribute” to pollution in counties with failing air quality grades, said Jack Broadbent, chief executive officer of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, during a teleconference with reporters.

The Bay Area district, which includes most of Sonoma County, has proposed new rules aimed at reducing pollutants from burning wood in fireplaces and stoves, asserting that wood smoke is the leading cause of wintertime air pollution in the region.

More than 70 percent of Californians - 28 million people - “live in counties plagued with unhealthy air during certain parts of the year,” said Olivia Gertz, president and CEO of the American Lung Association in California.

People exposed to ozone and particle pollution, which includes wood smoke, are “at greater risk for lung cancer, asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature deaths,” she said.

Nationwide, nearly 138.5 million people, almost 44 percent of the population, live where pollution levels are too often dangerous, the report said, noting some improvement from last year’s figure of 147.6 million people.

The four-year drought, which is prompting increasingly stringent water-use regulations, is also worsening air pollution, the experts said. Hot, dry weather increases airborne dust, a source of particle pollution, while larger and more frequent wildfires add to particulate and ozone levels.

“A change in climate is going to make it harder for us to protect human health,” Janice Nolen, an American Lung Association assistant vice president, said during the teleconference.

But improvements are possible even in areas with California’s dirtiest air, the experts said, repeatedly citing the conversion from a fossil fuel-based transportation system - including cars, trucks and trains - to a zero-emission system powered by electric and fuel-cell engines.

More immediate steps include people driving less, riding bicycles and public transit, carpooling and switching to low-emission autos, said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, an official with American Lung Association in California.

“Everybody still needs to pay attention to clean air solutions,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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