By Tom Frantz
A serious incident involving harm to scores of children occurred on Nov. 14 in Kern County. It happened at the Kern County Soccer Park where the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) held an Under-19 and Under-16 soccer tournament.
On this day, dozens of games were played at a location where the stagnating air was saturated with air pollution called fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). The haze on the morning in question totally blocked the view of the mouth of the Kern Canyon only five miles to the east. It was a fairly warm fall morning. The PM 2.5 was not from local fireplaces but was a concoction of nitrogen oxides from the nearby Kern River oil field, ammonia from the dairies surrounding Bakersfield, particulate emissions from upwind biomass incinerators and some carbon soot emissions from diesel trucks thrown into the mix.
The 24-hour PM 2.5 average for this location on that Saturday was approximately 53 micrograms per cubic meter according to a monitor a few miles to the west. During the morning and midafternoon hours, while the games were being played, the average was around 55 micrograms. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a health-based standard of 35 micrograms under the Clean Air Act. The World Health Organization (WHO) is more protective with a suggested standard of 25 micrograms.
The EPA and the WHO both consider this level of air pollution harmful to literally anyone who is outdoors, not just sensitive groups like young people, pregnant women and the elderly. They state clearly that no one should perform strenuous outdoor activity with these levels of pollution. Basically, no children should have been outside playing on this particular morning and afternoon in an event organized by responsible adults. It was gross negligence to have allowed this soccer tournament to take place.
A child’s exposure to fine particulates at these levels affects their lung development as these particles are breathed deep into the body. The exposure can lead to both short- and long-term damage to the lungs and heart because the particles are small enough to enter the bloodstream. In the long term, life expectancy is reduced because even slightly damaged lungs during childhood will lead to decreased lung function in later years. Everyone knows that active children playing a game like soccer are breathing heavily with their mouths open and are therefore exposed much more acutely than an adult simply standing on the sideline watching.
If someone’s life is ended prematurely because of another’s negligence, is it not a crime? The average life expectancy in Kern County is significantly shorter than the average in the rest of California because of air pollution. Part of this shorter life span can be avoided with proper safeguards. Society certainly has a moral and civic duty to protect children from harm.
The parents of children in Kern County should already be aware of the area’s reputation for having the worst air in the nation. Parents bringing their kids here from outside the Valley might plead ignorance but are not without fault. The AYSO officials who organized the event certainly have no excuse. Canceling or postponing an event due to unforeseen and unavoidable circumstances happens to them regularly.
Finally, the real guilty party in allowing this to happen are the members of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Governing Board. They oversee a health agency with the sole purpose of protecting the public from the negative health effects of breathing polluted air. We know the air board constantly balks at protecting the public when it might cause negative economic effects to local polluting businesses. But, there can be no economic excuse when it comes to protecting children who are playing organized sports outside on bad air days.
These board members are elected officials. They set the policy for air district staff. They must insist that staff do a better job informing the public of the dangers of air pollution. This board is ultimately responsible for the damage done to children’s lungs when sports are played on bad air days because they know better than anyone else the dangers. They must monitor these situations in the future and make the proper warnings more directly.
There is plenty of scientific evidence to prove the harm that happened to these children on Nov. 14. Because responsible adults acted negligently that day, there should be an investigation about what caused this to happen. Ultimately, the members of the air board must take responsibility and explain their reasons for not being more proactive in trying to prevent these tragedies.
Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, he serves on the CVAQ steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. 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. For more information, visit www. calcleanair.org.