The Modesto metropolitan area, which includes all of Stanislaus County, was ranked sixth in the nation for worst annual particle pollution and 13th for worst ozone pollution. It was also ranked No. 5 for most number of unhealthy days stemming from particulate matter.
Officials from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which regulates air pollution in the valley, say the report fails to tell the whole story, citing an 80 percent drop in pollution from valley businesses during the past two decades.
Valley air district spokesman Anthony Presto said he was not surprised with the report’s findings, but pointed to the valley’s overall improvements despite being surrounded by mountains that create prime conditions for air pollution.
“We have a lot of challenges here, and we’re very unique,” he said. “It’s as though we were designed to retain air pollution.”
No shortage of challenges
The Modesto area failed to meet the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s particulate matter standards for an average of 33 days each year from 2009 to 2011 — the period examined by the State of the Air report. That compares with an
annual average of 26 days between 2008 and 2010.
Particulate matter consists of tiny liquid droplets and solid particles, such as soot, metals, dust and pollens, that float through the air and can cause ailments including lung problems and heart disease.
Modesto was unranked for annual particulate matter in 2012 because of insufficient monitoring data, but was ranked the 11th worst metropolitan area for ozone that year.
The 2013 report noted that the decline in Modesto’s particulate matter ranking stemmed from unusual climate conditions in 2011, along with changes in monitoring.
The region was particularly hit hard in late 2011 and early 2012, when the air was stagnant with little wind and little rain, Presto said. He also said the valley air district is constantly updating equipment to its monitoring stations.
Other San Joaquin Valley cities fared even more poorly, with the Bakersfield-Delano area and Merced ranked as the worst cities in the U.S. in terms of particulate matter, followed by Fresno-Madera at No. 3 and Hanford-Corcoran at No. 4.
While the Los Angeles-Riverside area was ranked as having the nation’s worst ozone problems, the region was closely followed by Visalia-Porterville, Bakersfield-Delano, Fresno-Madera and Hanford-Corcoran.
Regional air improves
Despite the study’s low rankings for San Joaquin Valley communities, the study noted that the region has made major strides in recent years, and Presto said those improvements are often overlooked.
The number of good Air Quality Index days when fine particulate matter — such as soot and metals — are within acceptable ranges has risen from less than 200 in 2002 and 2003 to nearly 300 between 2011 and 2012, according to the air district’s 2012-13 annual report.
Mandatory permitting programs for polluting businesses, no-burn days for fireplaces and agricultural burning, and myriad other regulatory programs have paid off, according to the valley air district’s website.
Businesses have invested about $40 billion in air quality improvement measures since the valley air district formed in 1992, Presto said.
Unlike particulate matter, valley air district officials have no means of regulating ozone, which is caused by motor vehicles.
However, the district has helped reduce ozone through incentive programs, including financial rewards for companies that replace polluting trucks, buses and tractors with cleaner engines and a program that replaces gas lawnmowers with electric ones, Presto said.
Children at risk
Even as the air quality improves, San Joaquin Valley children remain particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.
For instance, children with asthma can suffer from lung function decrements, breathing problems and increased asthma attacks when ozone levels are high, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Kimberly Job, a school nurse for the Patterson Joint Unified School District, noted that asthma is a huge problem in the Central Valley.
Job, a member of the Stanislaus County Asthma Coalition, cited a 2007 study that indicated that 22 percent of children in the Central Valley and 21 percent in Stanislaus County were diagnosed with asthma compared with 16 percent statewide. She noted that 6 percent of the nearly 6,000 students within the Patterson Joint Unified School District are now diagnosed with the disease, but said many cases may be unreported.
It’s hard to know whether the problem is growing, as more people are aware of the ailment than they were in the past, she added.
In addition to creating problems for asthma patients, air pollution can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, arrhythmias and heart failure in susceptible people, such as the elderly or those with pre-existing medical condition, according to the American Heart Assocation.
Job also said poor air quality can cause respiratory infections such as bronchitis along with “watery, itchy sneezey type symptoms.”
As a result, school districts in the San Joaquin Valley have implemented an air quality program in which color-coded flags indicate the quality of the air on any given day. While students are advised to be kept indoors during extremely unhealthy air days, Job says she has yet to see that happen in the two years she has worked for the district.
While the EPA increased some of its air pollution standards in 2006, causing the San Joaquin Valley to fall farther behind, its air quality still is much better than 20 years ago, valley air district CEO Seyed Sadredin stated in the district’s annual report.
“We have seen significant improvements in the valley’s air quality,” he wrote, “and clean-air strategies designed and implemented in the valley now serve as the model for the rest of the state and the nation.”
Despite the state’s challenges, Jane Warner, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of California, expressed cautious optimism for the future of California’s air quality.
She advocated for Assembly Bill 8, which would extend the sunset date for clean air and clean vehicle incentive programs, and Senate Bill 11, which provide funding for alternative fuel and vehicle technologies.
“The State of the Air 2013 report shows that California is continuing the long-term trend to cleaner and much healthier air,” Warner said. “This progress in cleaning up air pollution demonstrates that our clean air laws are working.
“However, our report also shows that air pollution continues to put lives at risk throughout the state. We must step up our efforts to cut pollution so all Californians can breathe clean, healthy air.”
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187, ext. 26, or firstname.lastname@example.org.