By Kevin Hall
In discussions of air pollution, the topography and climate of the San Joaquin Valley are usually compared to a bowl with an inversion-layer lid, and when that lid closes in the summer, pollution is trapped and solar-cooked into a life-shortening, toxic soup of smog.
I have always preferred to describe the Valley as a garage: You and the family are in there, sitting in the car with the engine running, the garage door closed. When the wind blows or daytime highs stay below about 90°F, the door stays open, but in the long, hot summer months, the winds die and temperatures stay high. So the door stays shut for days, even weeks.
This year the door started to close in April, and smog levels rose to unhealthy levels in the usual places such as Bakersfield, Clovis and Fresno. But it really slammed shut the second week of May. Of the two dozen machines throughout the Valley that measure smog, all but two of them recorded dangerous levels for one or more days or, as in the case of Maricopa, simply broke down and stopped working.
From north to south, people’s health was being damaged in Tracy, Modesto, Turlock, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Clovis, Parlier, Tranquility, Porterville, Visalia, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Shafter, Arvin, Bakersfield, Edison and vast areas in between those monitor locations. Parlier, which sits downwind of Fresno in southeast Fresno County, was hit the hardest. For five days in a row, lung-scarring levels of smog were present for as many as eight hours each afternoon and evening. No doubt the same was true for Arvin in Kern County, but that community’s monitor was unlawfully removed last year and no local readings are available.
If you live in the foothills or higher up in the Sierra Nevada, you’re pretty much on your own and could be at high risk. The only pollution monitors along the majestic eastern wall of the Valley are in Tulare County at the 1,500- and 5,000-foot elevations, and ozone levels there regularly surpass the worst the Valley floor has to offer. Worse yet, the hours per day of dangerous pollution are greater, too. Researchers at UC Merced have suggested that Shaver Lake in Fresno County could be considered one of the most smog-polluted rural areas in the nation. Anecdotally, I remember being told years ago that a monitor at Shaver was removed because its readings were too high.
How high is the roof of this garage? Well, one clear visual example was provided by the infamous Gridley Tire Fire back in the late 1980s. Returning from a backpacking trip in the Sierra, as we drove down the mountain toward Huntington Lake at 7,000 feet in Fresno County, a yellow cloud of smoke covered the water. That’s the smog ceiling.
To keep you and your family safe this summer, pay attention to the Air Quality Index color codes. If it’s an “orange” day, plan on staying inside from around 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. or later. During those hours, the smog level will rise above orange to red and even purple. While the heat alone will usually keep most people indoors, many work outside. I again encourage people to sign up for hourly updates through the RAAN page at www.valleyair.org. It’s an online service only. There is no emergency system in place for warning the general population on most dangerous days.
What the Health?
The Central Valley Health Policy Institute recently issued an important report on the Valley’s severe, multiple health crises: Healthy People 2010—A 2010 Profile of Health Status in the San Joaquin Valley. Its findings show that over the last decade, there was little to no improvement. Go to www.cvhpi.org for more information.
Kevin Hall is director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition based in Fresno, online at www.calcleanair.org and on Facebook. CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improve the health of Californians. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org follow him on Twitter at SJVair.