Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Just when you thought it was safe to inhale

The October whiplash is in full swing. The San Joaquin Valley’s dirty air suddenly made a comeback in the last 10 days, then just as quickly vanished in a storm Monday.

Just a few weeks ago, I had written that the Valley has a good shot at the lowest-ever recorded number of federal eight-hour ozone exceedances. With a rash of exceedances — eight since Oct. 19 — it’s going to be close.

The total now is 91. The record is 93.

South Coast Air Basin in Southern California has 94 exceedances right now. The region has had only one ozone November exceedance in the last five years.

It’s possible the Valley could wind up with more than South Coast this year. That would mean the Valley would have the most in the nation.

There’s another issue in the Valley. A reader points out high hourly readings for tiny particle pollution, wondering why the residential wood-burning ban doesn’t start in October. Right now, the rule kicks in Nov. 1 each year.

As I understand it, the tiny particle threshold — known as the standard for PM-2.5 — is an average over 24 hours. So hourly readings, by themselves, are not considered exceedances.

But the reader pointed out some pretty high hourly readings, saying October is known for these problems. It might be worth taking a longer look at this point.

Remember, wood-burning restrictions begin Friday. Check with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s web site to see if wood-burning is allowed in your county before you light up.

Valley has briefly had Beijing-type siege

Beijing’s pollution this week was a lung-corroding 25 times worse than the federal threshold in the United States. Has the San Joaquin Valley ever seen levels that high?

Yes, but only for a few hours at a time once every few years. It happens after fireworks celebrations on the Fourth of July.

We’re talking about dangerous tiny particle pollution or PM-2.5. To explain the problem in China, it’s best use a quick comparison.

The U.S. standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The U.S. Embassy has recently reported an astounding 886 micrograms in Beijing. Schools there kept children indoors. Hospitals saw a 20% jump in patients with respiratory problems.

Back to the San Joaquin Valley.

On July 4, 2007, in Bakersfield, a monitor recorded 1,000 micrograms between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. For the next two hours, it remained near that level.

That’s scary, considering medical researchers have long said the U.S. standard is too lenient at 35 micrograms.

What happens on the Fourth of July? The sky is showered with smoke and metals such as magnesium, copper and barium. The metals cause a range of problems, including skin irritations, muscle weakness and confusion in people with kidney problems. PM-2.5 is linked to lung and heart disease as well as early mortality.

But the Valley’s problem, which among the worst in the nation, bears little resemblance to the air emergency in China.

Use an EPA-certified wood stove, get a little break on new rules

The local air board is planning to soften new restrictions that could stop wood-burning in fireplaces most of the winter in Fresno and Bakersfield.

Wood-burning will be allowed on some no-burn days, leaders said Thursday. But an EPA-certified wood-burning device, such as a stove or heater, would have to be used.

The district will hold public hearings to determine the threshold.

Starting in 2014, the new burn bans will be triggered when soot and other debris reaches 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Right now, the threshold is 30.

The exemption level for people using EPA-certified devices will probably be 30 to 35, I’m told.

On an even more technical note, the new restrictions are part of the district’s plan that will be sent to state and federal authorities. But the pollution reductions won’t be claimed until the winter of 2016-2017 in the plan — a matter of bookkeeping on the way to the 2019 attainment date.

The district board moved the restrictions up two years to get the health benefits early.

 

 


Air district board briefly confused by EPA proposal

For 15 embarrassing minutes, the local air board this week seemed as confused as the public about the federal government’s new particle pollution standard.

But the confusion did make a point. There are so many different air-quality plans, updates and bureaucratic requirements that even people who should know the score are sometimes lost.

On Thursday, several board members of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District were poised to purposely miss a federal deadline for a plan to meet the 2006 hourly standard.

It seemed pointless and expensive to approve the $1 billion cleanup for an out-of-date standard.
Why not take a little extra time to rewrite it to focus on the new standard?

But a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told them that the proposed change is for a different standard — the annual particle standard.

The board quickly and unanimously voted to approve the cleanup plan, which should clear the air by 2019.

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.

As PM-2.5 increases, so does risk of heart attacks

Over Thanksgiving, a friend asked how the San Joaquin Valley’s air quality might affect someone with a heart problem. It’s a good question now when the most dangerous air issues arrive.

There is evidence that heart attack risk rises as particle pollution, known as PM-2.5, increases.

What’s PM-2.5? Think soot from wood burning in fireplaces, though it also comes from diesel exhaust, chemicals in the air and microscopic moisture droplets.

By chance, an air-quality activist last week sent me a link to an article in progress on the Journal the American College of Cardiology. It included a section on PM-2.5, saying the odds of a fatal heart attack for nonsmokers rise 22% for each 10 microgram increase in PM-2.5.

The health standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air. On Jan. 1 this year, one Fresno monitor was 70 micrograms higher than that federal standard.

You don’t need to do the math to see that even people without heart or lung problems were suffering through an air crisis at the time.

The article advises anyone with cardiac problems to avoid exposure during episodes of PM-2.5. Last winter, that would have meant avoiding the outdoors for weeks in December and January.

Obviously, the Valley has many violations of the federal PM-2.5 standard. The biggest hot spots seem to be Fresno and Bakersfield, but there are PM-2.5 violations in many places.

What about this year?

A quick look at the California Air Resources Board site tells us that PM-2.5 hasn’t been a problem yet. If we have a lot of stormy weather this year, we might not have a long run of bad days as we did last year.

But dry, stable weather — as we seem to be having now — can make things miserable. So keep your eye on the weather report, and check with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District web page before you light a wood fire at home.

 

Weather whiplash, and PM-2.5 season starting

Ready for the weather whiplash and a season when air pollution can get dangerous?

You probably know forecasters are saying San Joaquin Valley days should nudge into the mid-80′s this week. By Saturday morning, the Valley may see its first widespread frost.

That’s what private meteorologist Steve Johnson wrote in his forecast. He said the lowest of the low temperatures don’t appear to be headed much below 30 degrees.

I’m interested mostly because of air quality. Occasionally, warm November temperatures result in ozone violations.  There were two in 2010.

More often, there are violations of the federal standard for tiny particles known as PM-2.5.  I sometimes call it soot, but PM-2.5 is many types of specks, including chemicals. In cities, a lot of PM-2.5 comes from wood-burning in fireplaces.

It’s time to pay attention to this dangerous pollutant. It is linked to heart disease, lung ailments and early mortality.

Check to see if it’s OK to burn wood before you light up. Even if you don’t have problems breathing, your neighbor might.