Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 22, 2022 vetoed AB 2550 which would have required the California Air Resources Board to bypass the Valley air district in areas where Valley regulators have failed to meet clean air standards on time. Credit: John Walker / The Fresno Bee

Fresno County is the dirtiest place in America for short-term particle pollution, according to a report published Thursday by the American Lung Association. The Fresno metro area saw a greater than 40% annual increase in the Lung Association’s statistic for annual short-term exposure to PM2.5 particles.

At a news conference for the report on Wednesday, the Lung Association said that climate change is degrading air quality in the American West by blanketing communities with hazardous wildfire smoke.

“The threat of deadly particle pollution continues to worsen, particularly on the West Coast as wildfires have become more frequent, more intense and more catastrophic,” said Will Barrett, the national senior director of Clean Air Advocacy with the American Lung Association.

Nationwide, Americans saw more days of very unhealthy and hazardous air than ever before in the report’s 23-year history, he said.

The American Lung Association’s 2022 State of the Air report underscored what is quickly becoming an epic public health crisis in the American West, with Fresno and Bakersfield taking the lead on testing the limits of how much air pollution the public can bear to breathe.

The five health experts at the event, ranging from a key California Air Resources Board official to a pediatrician, said that this air pollution causes lost work and school days, hurts childhood development and contributes to premature death. A study published last year estimated that wildfire smoke particles are 10 times more toxic than regular air pollution.

The ALA’s report found that the number of counties in the western U.S. getting failing air quality grades for short-term pollution spikes shot up nearly 300% in the last 15 years. In 2007, the American West accounted for 23% of the counties nationwide with failing air quality grades. Now, that number has jumped to 90%.

The San Joaquin Valley’s air pollution has for decades been an amalgam of dust, dung and diesel from the region’s suburban sprawl, petrochemical-laden farmland, mega-dairies and big-box warehouses. But Valley air pollution has swelled into a more noxious drift with the addition of what Richard Corey, CARB’s executive director, called “a new normal” – the fall-out smoke from the Sierra Nevada’s mass burning.

The Fresno, Bakersfield and Visalia metro areas had the three highest annual concentrations of particle pollution in the country.

Every county in the San Joaquin Valley failed all three of the ALA’s clean air tests for ozone, short-term and long-term particulate pollution. Only six other counties in the United States failed across the board like the Valley’s troubled eight.

Transitioning away from burning petroleum

The health expert panel at the conference said that the report’s findings call for a reimagining of California’s energy and transportation infrastructure.

“We can’t afford a transportation system that increases driving,” said Mariela Ruacho, a clean air advocacy manager with the American Lung Association in California.

California can’t deliver clean air to everyone without “transitioning away from burning petroleum,” CARB’s Corey said. “We also need to redesign our neighborhoods: we need to do much more work to develop communities that are walkable and connected and are not reliant upon everyone needing a car.”

Citing a recent report that estimated the state would experience $169 billion in public health benefits by transitioning to zero emissions technology and electrifying the energy grid, Barnett said that the benefits of healthier air could be massive for California.

The Lung Association’s report also called on the federal government to break ground on new air quality standards. The health organization said that an 8 microgram/liter annual average should be the next nationwide annual PM2.5 standard.

To accomplish such a standard in the Valley, local air pollution regulators would likely have to radically rework their current pollution control regime. The Valley’s most recent value for the annual PM2.5 standard, 17.6, is more than twice the Lung Association’s new proposal.

In an interview with Fresnoland/The Fresno Bee, Barnett said that in the past few years, Valley pollution emissions have not gone down quickly enough to blunt the health effects of wildfire smoke on local communities.

“We need to see the Air District ramping up their really important investment and incentive programs,” he said. “We need to see additional rules and policies in place to really ratchet down particle pollution that’s independent of the fire situation.”

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Gregory Weaver is a staff writer for Fresnoland who covers the environment, air quality, and development.

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