Wildfires, climate change making it harder to breathe in Sacramento, report says

Smog gets bad quickly in the San Joaquin Valley. Images taken just days apart show the dramatic shift

Sight of the Sierra Nevada from Tulare County all but disappeared within days at the end of January as the San Joaquin Valley floor became choked with soot and dust, creating air pollution ranking the worst in the nation.
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Sight of the Sierra Nevada from Tulare County all but disappeared within days at the end of January as the San Joaquin Valley floor became choked with soot and dust, creating air pollution ranking the worst in the nation.

The air is terrible in Sacramento, and climate change is baking the problem in, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association.

For the second year in a row, Sacramento was named fifth in a list of worst major U.S. cities for ozone pollution in the Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report. Sacramento also moved up from 19th to 15th in the nation for particle pollution days, scoring an F for both categories.

This year’s report covered data from 2015 to 2017, when record high temperatures and wildfires caused by climate change contributed significantly to a rise in air pollution levels across California, according to the report.

“The climate warming we see is actually undoing a lot of the good work that our air quality regulation is trying to do,” Dr. John Balmes, the physician member of the California Air Resources Board, said in a press conference outlining the report Tuesday.

Balmes said that Sacramento fares comparably better on year-round pollution levels, which are mostly affected by power plant and diesel fuel emissions, but still suffers from more bad particle days because of wildfires and high ozone days because of global warming.

Health risks

Exposure to air pollution can contribute to health problems such as cardiovascular diseases, stroke and lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization, and air pollution increases the risk for respiratory infections.

Children, the elderly and those who struggle with chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma are most vulnerable to feeling the effects of bad air days. Nearly 11 percent of children ages 5 to 17 and 13 percent of adults ages 65 and older in Sacramento County have asthma, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Bad ozone days primarily affect the respiratory system, and can even make allergy symptoms worse because ozone causes inflammation in the airways, Balmes said. By contrast, particle matter pollution is more of a cardiovascular disease problem.

Dr. Sonal Patel, a Pasadena-area pediatrician, said during the teleconference that the best strategy for people sensitive to poor air quality is to stay inside if possible, carry rescue inhalers and avoid exercise.

But not everyone can avoid bad air days. Farmworkers and construction workers as well as homeless people have few options -- which helps explain why lower income populations are disproportionately affected by climate change.

Sacramento State estimated in a 2017 report that approximately 3,665 people are homeless on a nightly basis in Sacramento County, and a majority of them are sleeping outdoors.

Air quality in the Sacramento area this week has hovered between “good” and “moderate” pollution levels, according to tracking by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But high heat and stagnant air mean that Sacramento tends to struggle with ozone levels in the summer. The heat spurs the chemical reaction that turns pollutants into ozone, and stagnant air ensures that pollutants are plentiful, Balmes said.

Currently, Sacramento experiences a few 105-degree days per year. But by mid-century, the city is expected to experience two months of 105-degree days, according to Balmes.

More hot days as a result of climate change mean emissions are being turned into ozone more often. Higher temperatures also extend the wildfire season by delaying winter rains, which explains why Sacramento’s particle pollution ranking got worse in the 2019 report.

“Sacramento has put in place very strong policies to reduce particle pollution,” Will Barrett, director of Clean Air Advocacy for the American Lung Association in California, said. “The issue of the wildfire just adds that layer of challenge that we are trying to convey this year.”

Barrett said over the 20 years of the State of the Air reports, Sacramento has seen over a 70 percent reduction in particle pollution levels, but “maintaining progress is just that much more difficult because of wildfires.”

Solutions suggested

Experts said one of the most important steps lawmakers can take is to protect and strengthen the Clean Air Act as well as California’s special waiver, which allows state regulators to write stricter emissions standards than the federal government requires. President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled interest in eliminating the California waiver among its deregulation efforts.

And although the transportation sector is still the dominant source of air pollution in California, regulators can’t focus solely on emissions standards, Balmes said.

“I applaud that Governor Newsom has made affordable housing along with wildfires one of his themes this year,” Balmes said. “Without affordable housing we aren’t going to address the vehicle miles traveled issue.”

In major California cities such as San Francisco, it is too expensive for low-income workers to live near their jobs or affordable public transportation, Balmes said. These workers instead drive longer and longer distances to get to work, and those miles are often logged in older cars that are less environmentally friendly.

In other words, to deal with pollution from cars, the state must address equity issues, Balmes said.

At the same time, Balmes said in an interview that climate change is a global problem: It does not recognize national borders, so despite efforts by Sacramento and California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is still causing poor air quality.

“Even if we double down – which we are trying to do – we can only lead by example,” Balmes said. “If we work our butts off, but nobody else does, there’s still going to be climate change that affects California.”

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