Clearing the Air – Oct. 2012: Particulate Matters a Lot

Clearing the Air – Oct. 2012: Particulate Matters a Lot
Kevin Hall

By Kevin Hall

In a presentation before a class of 15 Fresno State seniors last month, I conducted a poll of these intelligent, highly educated, computer-literate, smartphone-owning future entrants into the field of mental and social services. “Influencers” and “extenders” they are sometimes called.

The results did not come as a surprise, but they were striking:

  • All but one had graduated from a high school in the San Joaquin Valley,
  • More than half had a family member with asthma,
  • Not one of them had heard of the Valley Air Board Website, and
  • Not one of them had heard of the Valley Air Board’s Real-Time Air Alert Network, but
  • Every single person knew about the colored flag system.

And the system is about to change dramatically—in a good way.

This year, the particulate season is going to see many more hours in the purple zone. Those are the times when absolutely no one should be working, exercising or playing outside. This applies to all people regardless of age or health status. In short, this means you and everyone you know in the area.

Has the particulate pollution gotten worse? No, the health science has improved and the warning system is finally catching up.

Unfortunately, the Valley Air Board’s emphasis on plastering the roadways and airwaves with elected officials strangely happy about their failed efforts to clean our air—its millions spent on public relations rather than public education—is drowning out the one useful health protective message the agency has to offer: when not to play, exercise or work outside.

The educational piece not occurring is threefold: people are not being told that on many yellow, orange or red flag days there will be hours in which particulate levels are in warning color zones higher than the flag for that day. Nor are they being told, as witnessed by our poll of college students, that there is a system in place to warn people of these higher levels through e-mail and texting updates on an hourly basis. Finally, and most capriciously, there is no “Spare the Air Day” or comparable emergency warning system in place for days with purple hours. You are basically on your own to figure it out, provided you even know how.

Friday Night Lights Out

As a general rule, in the coming fall and winter months the highest pollution levels will occur during the morning hours, again in the early evening and, during really bad episodes,until midnight. If you like to work up a good sweat working in the yard, cycling, walking and such, pay attention. Go to and click on the RAAN link. Set up an account by selecting a nearby elementary school as your area.

If you are a parent, you need to take responsibility for your children. Principals, teachers and, most important, coaches are theoretically aware of the warning system, and many school districts have policies in place stating they will follow the outdoor activity guidelines attached to these hourly warnings. Don’t bet on it.

The real test of character for the Valley Air Board will come during football season and its willingness to call for the cancellation of Friday night games due to dangerously high levels of particulate pollution. The new, lower threshold for purple hours is nearly half what it was last season. There will be many, many more hours during which the Board’s policy should be in effect.

But will the Valley Air Board allocate even a small sliver of its immense public relations pie to truly warn Valley residents? Or will political science continue to trump health science in our struggle to keep people safe? Writer and social commentator H.L. Mencken wrote, “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.” The coming months will determine the degree of shame in which we must all share.


Kevin Hall is director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition based in Fresno, online at 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 or follow him on Twitter at SJVair.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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