Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Breathe now, soot season on its way

People are getting a breather between dirty-air seasons right now in the San Joaquin Valley — ozone season is almost gone and soot season hasn’t quite started.

Which is worse, ozone or soot? It’s definitely soot, which is my shorthand term for specks of soot, chemicals and other microscopic debris.

These specks account for the vast majority of early mortality related to dirty air.  In the air-quality community, the specks are known as PM-2.5.

About 670 premature deaths will be eliminated by 2019 when the region is supposed to achieve the PM-2.5 standard, according to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Where are the deaths occurring? Kern County has nearly a third of them with 207 a year, according to the research. Fresno County has 172. Tulare County has 86.

There’s a lot of other folks suffering, too.

Research shows there will be reductions hospital admissions related to heart attacks and asthma. More than 125,000 days of lost work will be eliminated.

When you add up all costs for those non-fatal health problems, you get $102 million total, the air district says.


George Brown says:

Precisely why I moved to Oregon 6 years ago

Étieme says:

Residential wood-burning is the single greatest direct contributor to dangerous PM 2.5 levels in urban Fresno’s winter air. The Air District is cognizant of this and recognizes the present threshold for declaring a no-burn day is inadequate to protect public health. Why then do they delay implementation of the new minimum air quality standard at which burning is allowed? Why are we forced to endure another winter under the old no-burn threshold? Our Air District offers no cogent rationale, because there is none.

Alan Kandel says:

In the above blog post you wrote: “About 670 premature deaths will be eliminated by 2019 when the region is supposed to achieve the PM-2.5 standard, according to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.”

Yesterday I read in a Bakersfield Californian editorial by Lois Henry “Enforcing smog rules this way is bad for business” (last article in the grouping). In it, Henry writes: “I’ve done numerous stories on studies showing that PM2.5 isn’t killing Californians. And, in fact, a growing number of studies are showing PM2.5 has zero effect on premature deaths.”

I can’t dispute what Ms. Henry has asserted. At the same time, I believe it would be helpful to know what studies it is she referred to.

Making claims and not providing specifics in my thinking doesn’t help at all and does nothing but further complicate matters.

Related to this I found: “Clearing the air” at U-T San Diego written by Deborah Sullivan Brennan

In it Ms. Brennan wrote: “Last week [Veerabhadran] Ramanathan’s discoveries helped him earn the United Nations’ highest environmental accolade: the 2013 Champions of the Earth award.”

If I understand what I read, then the Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor’s findings are such that soot can contribute to premature death.

In fact, Ms. Brennan wrote: “As carbon dioxide made news for its role in climate change, Veerabhadran Ramanathan made a striking discovery: Soot and other climate pollutants are 30 to 3,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide and cause millions of deaths per year.”

Alan Kandel says:

I did some additional research and here is what I was able to find.

In a Scientific Integrity Institute document titled: “January 18, 2009 Lois Henry Bakersfield Californian Column on Air Pollution ‘Hype clouds our real pollution picture,’” (,in the Bakersfield Californian article in question, Ms. Henry wrote the following:

“‘For the 32 western U.S. locations, there is little evidence of an association between chronic PM2.5 and mortality,’ the study [a Dec. 2008 Johns-Hopkins study, presumably] states.”

Also mentioned was a 2003 James Enstrom study in which Ms. Henry wrote:

“A 2003 study by James Enstrom, an epidemiologist at University of California, Los Angeles, found California did not have a death rate out of whack with our population. We don’t have a lot of premature deaths, much less from air pollution.”

When I read clauses like “there is little evidence,” this is not the same as meaning “there is no evidence.” That there is “little evidence” suggests there is “some evidence.”

As it relates, there is an Air Quality Index/Particulate Matter connection.

So, being the AQI ranges or categories go from “Good” (green) to “Hazardous” (dark purple), if PM did not pose a danger or threat to health, then it would seem logical that there would be no association between AQI and PM. But, there is.

And one last point, what I remember reading a while back was something to the effect that there was a PM connection to lung airway-narrowing in nine non-asthmatic women study participants involved in a University of California, San Francisco-Fresno medical education program-based study and also that trace amounts of chemicals linked to PM were found in the urine samples of asthmatic women who took part in the study, if I recall correctly.

I wonder what Ms. Henry would have to say about that.

Étieme says:

@Alan Kendall
I assume this is the Enstrom study referenced in the Lois Henry column and one can see why she wishes to forestall her readers googling him and fails to mention his association with UCLA has been severed. The Bakersfield Californian does a real disservice to its readers in publishing such shoddy opinion pieces.

“In 2003, Enstrom and Kabat published in the British Medical Journal a second CIAR-funded analysis of CPS-I on SHS [second hand smoke] and tobacco-related mortality, examining never-smoking adults exposed to a smoking spouse, and concluded that no statistically significant associations with mortality existed. The tobacco industry publicized the Enstrom and Kabat work around the world. The study was criticized for repeating the same exposure misclassification error as that by LeVois and Layard, despite having been specifically warned by the American Cancer Society that it was inappropriate to use CPS-I for SHS studies. (An analysis of tobacco industry documents revealed that the British Medical Journal financial disclosure requirement was not adequate to give readers and reviewers an appreciation for the authors’ long-standing relationships with the tobacco industry and the fact that the study was a “special project” funded by industry lawyers and executives outside the peer review process.) Both the California Environmental Protection Agency7 and the US Surgeon General subsequently discounted the Enstrom and Kabat study in their evaluations of the health effects of SHS because of the problem in CPS-I with exposure misclassification.”
—from: Special Report Tobacco Industry Efforts Undermining Evidence Linking Secondhand Smoke With Cardiovascular Disease Elisa K. Tong, MD, MA; Stanton A. Glantz, PhD

The Johns Hopkins study Ms. Henry mentions concludes quite the opposite of what Ms. Henry implies

Results: Interquartile range increases in organic carbon matter (OCM), elemental carbon (EC), silicon, and sodium ion were associated with estimated increases in mortality of 0.39% [95% posterior interval (PI): 0.08, 0.70%], 0.22% (95% PI: 0.00, 0.44), 0.17% (95% PI: 0.03, 0.30), and 0.16% (95% PI: 0.00, 0.32), respectively, based on single-pollutant models. We did not find evidence that associations between mortality and PM2.5 or PM2.5 constituents differed by season or region.

—Krall JR, Anderson GB, Dominici F, Bell ML, Peng RD. 2013. Short-term exposure to particulate matter constituents and mortality in a national study of U.S. urban communities. Environ Health Perspect 121:1148–1153;

Alan Kandel says:

@ Étieme

The information you provided is quite helpful in my opinion. When commentary is backed up with facts, rather than with conjecture, a real service is done. You indeed did your homework in this regard. Thank you for providing your “fact-based” perspective. Much appreciated!

Étieme says:

On further reflection, the Johns-Hopkins study Ms. Henry referenced must have been this earlier one from Dec 2008 (as you’d noted. I conflated the date of the second Lois Henry column with the first.)
Mortality in the Medicare Population and Chronic Exposure to Fine Particulate Air Pollution in Urban Centers (2000–2005)

It concluded that for the cohort of Medicare participants studied, chronic and long-term exposure to PM2.5 was associated with greater mortality in the eastern and central regions, but not in the western United States if you were between 65 and 85 years old. If you were older than 85, there was increased mortality. However, as the later Hopkins study (and many others) indicate, a PM2.5/mortality association isn’t really magically dependant on what region of the country in which you happen to reside and it’s a stretch for Ms. Henry to say this vindicated the Enstrom second-hand smoke study.

Interesting how epidemiological data gets twisted. There are even those claiming today, making use of the fact that life expectancy has risen generally in China over the last 35 years, that therefore the really horrific PM2.5 pollution in Chinese cities must be good for you!

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