California metropolitan areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and Bakersfield continue to rank as some of the U.S. cities with the worst air pollution, according to a new report from the American Lung Association.
Nine out of 10 Californians live in an area affected by harmful air pollutants, according to Wednesday's 2023 State of the Air report.
Bakersfield and Visalia tied for first place as the cities with the most year-round particle pollution, and Los Angeles dominated as the city with the worst ozone pollution, also known as smog, as it has for nearly 24 years.
The 24th annual air report utilized the most recent air pollution data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with a focus on ozone and particulate matter. Researchers assigned grades to counties and cities across the country based on daily and long-term levels of air pollution.
In years prior, the report's findings have reflected the success of the federal Clean Air Act, noting significant pollution reductions in the industrial and transportation sectors.
But recent years have revealed new obstacles in preserving clean air as climate change-induced natural disasters intensify—specifically, disproportionately higher particle pollution in western states due to wildfires.
Wednesday's report cites wildfires contributing to an increase in the number of places and days that face unhealthy levels of particle pollution.
Between the years of 2019 to 2021, nearly 32 million people across 10 states endured days where Air Quality Index levels of particulate matter were 106 parts per billion or higher, which are levels that increase the health risks of everyone, regardless of preexisting conditions, according to the report. Researchers note that this is a "worrisome sign of a trend" that is likely to continue if wildfire conditions worsen.
Mariela Ruacho, clean air advocacy manager for the American Lung Association in California, called on California officials to move quickly with wildfire prevention efforts and investments into clean transportation.
"We need zero-emission technologies across the board," Ruacho said. "We also need to build a healthier transportation system."
Overall, air quality has improved across the nation: 17.6 million fewer people live in unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution levels than last year's report.
But unhealthy air disproportionately burdens communities of color—nationwide, 72% of residents living in counties with failing air pollution grades are people of color.
Dr. Sonal Patel, an allergy and immunology specialist in Southern California, said breathing in air pollution is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular damage, and it poses a significant threat to people with asthma.
"I know when I see those hazy smog days that my phone is going to start ringing in the office because my patients with asthma are going to start having trouble, through no fault of their own," Patel said. "They cannot avoid the unhealthy air. I have seen these effects firsthand."
The time is now to make investments that will clean up the air, Katherine Pruitt, the American Lung Association's national senior director of policy, said at a press conference Tuesday.
"The American Lung Association is calling on the Biden administration to urgently move forward on several measures to clean up air pollution nationwide, including limits on ozone and particle pollution and new measures in California," Pruitt said.
California Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-Colton, also in attendance at Tuesday's press conference, introduced legislation that would impose more air quality measures on warehouse centers and truck transportation. Reyes represents San Bernardino, the county ranked with the worst ozone pollution in the nation.
"There are so many residents facing this overall burden, especially from local pollution from the hundreds of thousands of diesel trucks rolling through our communities," Gómez Reyes said. "Trucks are passing to Black and Brown communities and immigrants in lower-income neighborhoods, making life unhealthy.
"The pollution facing my most vulnerable communities is not terribly different from the pollution facing so many Californians. We must clean up all local sources of pollution to bring our regional burdens down," she added.
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