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.

Clearing Sequoia’s air 83 years from now

Giant Forest web cam looking at the San Joaquin Valley.

Take a look at the Giant Forest web cam. Most of the time, you can see why the National Parks Conservation Association sees a need to improve hazy conditions in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

It is improving, the group says, but far too slowly. How long will it take to clear the air at this rate? About 83 years, the parks association said last week, quoting statistics from the California Air Resources Board.

The parks association got such calculations for many national parks as part of a campaign for more action.

The group’s sampling of 10 national parks includes Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree and Sequoia. Yellowstone won’t get natural air quality until 2163. Check out the other parks. You’ll find Sequoia’s 2096 is the earliest cleanup date.

Sequoia’s foothill air monitor at Ash Mountain is among the smoggiest places in the country. Sequoia usually has more bad ozone days each year than Fresno, Bakersfield or Los Angeles.

Ozone is invisible, but it makes the haze more unhealthy. The parks association says  more natural conditions will be better for both people and Sequoia-Kings Canyon.

“The basic idea is that clear air will be good for both the lungs of people and the ecosystem of the national park,” said Stephanie Kodish, Clean Air Program director and counsel for the parks groups.

That means focusing on clean-air improvements on vehicles in California, Kodish said. The cleaner engine rules need to be developed faster, she said.

Heat, yes, but ozone needs sunlight, too

My story Sunday on cooling down Fresno to help lower ozone was directly at heat, but air temperature is not the only part of the equation.

On Sunday, nature demonstrated why heat isn’t the only factor. It was 102 degrees but just cloudy enough to slow down the chemical reaction that makes ozone.

There was no breach of either federal ozone standard on Sunday — in the middle of August with very light winds and 100-plus degrees.

Ozone needs oxides of nitrogen from combustion sources, such as your car’s engine, and reactive organic gases, such as fumes from gasoline or dairies. But without both warmth and sunlight, the gas doesn’t form as well.

Take a look at the numbers for Sunday. Fresno’s three monitors never got above 70 parts per billion for ozone. The federal eight-hour standard is 75 parts per billion, and it’s officially an exceedance when the average hits 76.

Monday looks like a similar cloudy start to the day. I saw lightning over the Sierra. If the weather stays dark and unsettled, there may be another August day in the Valley without an exceedance of the ozone standard.

Update: Silver lining in that cloud of smog

Update Tuesday, June 11:

The highest ozone peak in June so far has been in Sequoia National Park as dirty air has appeared over most of the San Joaquin Valley in hot, stagnant conditions. It happened Saturday afternoon.

The eight-hour federal ozone standard was exceeded for the first nine days of June, but there are two good pieces of news.

One, the ozone siege has backed off as the weather has cooled down.

And, two, the air didn’t exceed the one-hour federal ozone standard, which is connected to a $29 million annual dirty-air fine. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District says there has been dramatic improvement over the last several years for that standard.

The Valley can end the $29 million penalty in the next season or so if the one-hour peaks remain below the federal threshold.

This summer, the district will continue education and alerts to encourage air-friendly behavior — such as refraining from idling when dropping off or picking up students.

This Valley tends to overload with ozone in hot, stagnant conditions. Chemicals from such sources as traffic and gasoline fumes cook into ozone. In those conditions, this region was an ozone oven for the first week of June.

How many days has the Valley exceeded the stricter, eight-hour federal standard and how does it compare to 2012? The California Air Resources Board web site shows 23 days this year, 17 at this point last year.

Parlier has highest ozone reading

Parlier, a city of about 12,000 in Fresno County, had the highest ozone peak over the last week or so, but dirty air has appeared over most of the San Joaquin Valley.

In hot, stagnant conditions, chemicals from such sources as traffic and gasoline fumes cook into ozone. The Valley was an ozone oven for the first week of June.

The Parlier peak was interesting because it happened between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on a Sunday. When a small town gets the Valley’s highest peak, I think about a huge plume of dirty air floating in from Fresno after rush-hour commute.

Was there a morning plume of pollutants from folks driving to church in Fresno and Clovis on that Sunday? Was there some kind of malfunction in the Parlier monitor?

I don’t know, but you can see the hourly readings climbed very early in the day. At 7 a.m., Parlier was already exceeding the federal eight-hour ozone threshold.

Elsewhere in the Valley, most monitors detected a bad-air buildup, but there were exceptions. Tracy, Modesto and Stockton didn’t exceed the threshold. Neither did Visalia.

How many days has the Valley exceeded the standard and how does it compare to 2012? The California Air Resources Board web site shows 20 days this year, 17 at this point last year.

Get your summer ozone game on

Ozone season came back with a vengeance in early June as temperatures spiked over the very warm weekend. Get your summer game on — avoid the afternoon peaks.

A breezy May left the San Joaquin Valley with only eight days when the ozone exceeded the federal standard.  It’s easy to forget about air quality in those conditions. Now the heat and ozone are here.

Over the weekend, the problem areas for ozone included Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield, Hanford, Arvin, Porterville and Sequoia National Park.

Ozone is a corrosive gas that forms in warm, stagnant weather. It attacks the skin, eyes and lungs.

Even for healthy adults, it’s not a good idea to exercise in the late afternoons when this stuff peaks. If you have small children, try to keep them inside on the bad days.

How will you know when there’s a bad day ahead? Check with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District for daily forecasts.

Bad air in Houston, Phoenix? Not compared to Valley

The phone conversation started with a question: Which city has worse ozone — Fresno or Bakersfield?

It’s a good question, but I told the reader that we have this conversation far too often around here. It’s like debating the difference between drowning in 15 feet of water and 17 feet of water.

Fresno? Bakersfield? They’re both among the worst in the country.

I think it’s more interesting to compare the Valley with cities outside of California that have a national reputation for dirty air — like Houston and Phoenix. The pollution in Fresno, Bakersfield and other Valley cities is far worse than in cities several times larger.

Look at 2012 violations of the federal eight-hour ozone standard. Phoenix has 1.46 million people, according to the U.S. Census, and the city recorded 30 violations. Houston with a population of 2.1 million had 35.

How many Valley locations had more violations? Clovis, Fresno, Parlier, Arvin, Bakersfield, Oildale, Edison, Porterville and, oddly enough, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

In fact, Houston and Phoenix combined didn’t have as many as the Ash Mountain site in Sequoia National Park, which recorded 82 violations. Parlier with a population of about 15,000 in Fresno County had 60. In Southern California, Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains led the nation with 88.

Back to Bakersfield and Fresno.

In Fresno with population of about a half million, there were 51 violations last year at one monitoring site. In Bakersfield, population 352,000, one monitor showed 56.

Compared to the rest of the country, the Valley is really in another universe. Fresno and Bakersfield are just part of a bigger picture here.

Confusing air standards will save lives

The federal government last week announced a new standard for dangerous bits of soot, chemical and other debris — saying it will save hundreds of lives when the air is clear in 2020.

On Thursday, the local air district will consider a plan with a 2019 timeline to clean up this debris. So, we’re fine with the new standard, right? Not exactly.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is not talking about the new standard announced last week. It’s talking about a new standard announced a few years ago.

And, like most new standards, the Valley can’t possibly meet this one in time to avoid a problem with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If you’re thinking this is confusing, you’re right. The Valley and the Los Angeles area’s South Coast Air Basin are still struggling to keep up with older standards, much less achieving new ones.

Every few years when medical research advances and regulators realize the old standards are not protecting people, we get a new drama in the Valley and South Coast.

That’s always going to be the case. South Coast has 16 million people and big challenges with the warm weather. The Valley is surrounded by mountains and has even bigger challenges with weather.

The confusion and drama are worth it only because the air quickly becomes a public health crisis at times in the Valley. The EPA was not exaggerating when it reported that lives would be saved with a particle pollution standard that cuts the soot and other debris by 20%.

Who are the people who die prematurely due to this pollution? Think about people you know who have heart, lung or other severe health problems. It could be your grandfather, your aunt or even you.

A 2008 study by California State University at Fullerton showed that 800 people die prematurely in the Valley each year. Most of those deaths are blamed on microscopic soot, chemicals and other particles.

Economist Jane V. Hall, one of the Cal State Fullerton authors of the study, placed a value of more than $5 billion on the lives of those who die from bad air quality. It’s not actual money. It’s a value set by federal government based on risk and human life..

The whole process of cleaning the air under federal law is confusing and just a bit of a mess. But the plan under consideration Thursday at the local air district will make quite a difference. The new standard, which may seem completely out of reach right now, will help even more.