Lung Association report cites climate change for rise in airborne soot, smog

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Grading Air Quality

The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report assigned air pollution grades to California counties, including three north of the bay, for the period 2015-2017.

Particle pollution:

Sonoma County: C

Lake County: C

Mendocino County: F

Ozone pollution:

Sonoma County: B

Lake County: A

Mendocino County: A

Sonoma County residents choked on smoke from the 2017 firestorms that also ended the county’s eight-year run of perfect scores on the American Lung Association’s annual air quality report card, which cited climate change for a nationwide trend of increasingly foul air.

Pollution levels rose throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and around the United States, with many cities reaching or tying their worst marks ever, the “State of the Air” 2019 report said, calling the trend “evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health.”

Bay Area air pollution in October 2017 was as bad as smog-cloaked Beijing, China, sending people to emergency rooms, forcing schools to close and people to wear masks when they stepped outside. A regional air board official called it the worst air quality ever recorded in many parts of the Bay Area.

The three years covered by the lung association’s latest report — 2015 to 2017 — ranked as the hottest years on record globally, with spikes in ozone and particle pollution putting millions more Americans at risk, the report said.

Seven of the 20 most destructive fires in state history occurred during those three years, including the Tubbs, Valley, Nuns, Atlas and Redwood Valley fires in the North Bay and Mendocino County.

Heat drives up pollution by converting vehicle emissions to ozone, also known as smog, while wildfires driven in part by changing rain patterns generate particle pollution, called soot. Diesel engines and wood-burning stoves also generate soot.

“As climate change continues, cleaning up these pollutants will become ever more challenging,” the report said.

California’s air pollution hot spots — Los Angeles, Fresno and Bakersfield — dominated national rankings for unhealthy air.

Sonoma County had earned a pair of As without a single day of ozone or particle pollution exceeding federal standards for the past eight years, marks it owes largely to ocean winds that blow pollution east, contributing to poor grades in other counties.

But in the report released Wednesday, the county got a B for one day of excessive ozone pollution and a C for four days of particle pollution.

Mendocino County saw a perfect score for ozone but got an F for 12 days of excessive particle pollution, along with eight other Bay Area and Northern California counties flagged with Fs, including Napa, Marin and Humboldt.

Lake County also was perfect for ozone, but got a C for three days of particle pollution.

No California county got perfect air quality scores for the first time in the 20 years the report has been issued.

“We are seeing climate change in our air pollution impacts,” said Jenny Bard, a lung association spokeswoman based in Santa Rosa.

The report is a “wake-up call,” underscoring the need to move away from fossil fuel-powered transportation and put more zero-emission vehicles on the road, she said, and comes in the face of federal government rollbacks on anti-pollution standards.

“Our clean air laws have been under attack since the beginning of this administration,” Bard said.

The report noted that the Clean Air Act of 1970, which has driven improvements in air quality for nearly 50 years, “must remain intact and enforced” to continue the trend.

More than 141 million Americans — more than 4 in 10 people — live in counties that got at least one F for foul air, 7 million more than in last year’s report and 16 million more than in the 2017 report. But the number remains far below the 166 million in the years covered by the 2016 report.

Freeway-laced Los Angeles remained the city with the worst ozone pollution, as it has for 19 of the report’s 20-year history. Los Angeles ranked the fifth most polluted city in the nation for year-round particle pollution and seventh for short-term particle pollution.

Bakersfield, in an area ringed by mountains at the south end of the Central Valley, was No. 1 in short-term particle pollution, third in ozone pollution and second in year-round particle pollution.

The Fresno area ranked first in year-round particle pollution, second in short-term particle pollution and fourth in ozone pollution.

In the latest report, California had seven of the 10 most ozone-polluted cities in the nation.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

Grading Air Quality

The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report assigned air pollution grades to California counties, including three north of the bay, for the period 2015-2017.

Particle pollution:

Sonoma County: C

Lake County: C

Mendocino County: F

Ozone pollution:

Sonoma County: B

Lake County: A

Mendocino County: A

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