The Air We Breathe Makes Us Sick

By Dr. Rosanna Esparza

There’s no getting around the appalling air pollution in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and the situation is about to get worse. The Trump administration’s proposal to expand Bureau of Land Management drilling and fracking by more than one million acres throughout eight counties in the Central Valley might become reality. For the sake of the health and well-being of people living within these communities, stop and think about the consequences when profits trump people.

The American Lung Association’s 2019 State of the Air report named three regions in California with the worst smog levels: Los Angeles–Long Beach, Bakersfield and Fresno–Madera. Ninety percent of Californians live in counties with unhealthy air.

Ozone is a highly reactive gas that’s produced when the sun’s rays split oxygen molecules. Bakersfield ranks third in the United States for ozone (O3) pollution. Fresno is just behind in fourth place for average year-round concentrations of smog (smoke + fog) and particulate matter (PM). The higher the temperature, the worse the ground level ozone.

The years from 2015 to 2017 were the three hottest years on record worldwide. Breathing in ozone + small particulate matter is harmful to your health.

PM2.5 pollution comprises microscopic particles smaller than the width of a human hair. The specks can lodge deep in the lungs, enter the bloodstream and cause health impacts and respiratory conditions. Widespread oil, gas and agricultural development, alongside emissions from rail freight, livestock and dairies, medium and heavy-duty vehicles, industry and unfavorable wind patterns trap dry, dirty air in our “bowl” creating the worst air quality in the nation (O3 + PM2.5).  

Health studies in communities less than a quarter mile from oil drilling and fracking reveal an assortment of health symptoms:

  • Neurological: Forgetfulness, memory loss, falling.
  • Kidney/Urological: Frequent urination, blood in urine, sugar in urine, kidney stones.
  • Immunological: Frequent infections, poor wound healing.
  • Reproductive: Abnormal PAP smear, infertility, abnormal mammogram.
  • Cardiological/Circulatory: Blue lips, nose or skin, stroke, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat.
  • Mood/Behavior: Sleep disorders, depression, behavioral changes, compulsive behavior.
  • Digestive/Stomach: Abdominal pain, bleeding from rectum, redness or swelling of gums.
  • Skin disorders: Rashes, dry cracked red skin, peeling hands and arms, discolored areas of skin.

Seek medical attention if any of the above symptoms persist.

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that globally the human-made climate crisis has touched us all. Current oil development and lack of fair and equal political action is pushing the San Joaquin Valley to the limit. The Trump administration’s rollback of Clean Air and Clean Water Act regulations will set us back 40–50 years.

I am a gerontologist. I’ve devoted 22 years exploring what it means to be old in America. Today’s seniors will likely live into their 80s or early 90s. Tomorrow’s seniors won’t. We’ll die younger and sicker because of higher rates of exposure to chemicals, toxicity and compromised immune systems.

We’re living in a lab with the potential for people to “age in place” if we act reasonably. If we don’t change our ways, our life span and that of our children and grandchildren will be cut short.

Small particle pollution (PM 2.5) travels long distances. No matter where you live, the chances of suffering some type of health problem exist. From the eastside to the westside, north and south, this is us.

California does not have a “health and safety zone” (setback limits), a common sense distance between oil drilling and where people live, work and play. The question I’m asked most often, “Is the air making me sick?”

I moved to the Central Valley in 2014. I’ve had headaches, nosebleeds, rashes, sinus problems and, now, asthma. There’s little to protect us, our children, our grandchildren and our beloved pets from the reality of shortsighted choices favoring big oil.

Air pollution (smog, ozone, PM2.5) harms the health of all our communities. It affects our beloved public lands, such as Sequoia National Park just 35 miles away. The giant sequoias have been around for hundreds of years, but we already are starting to see the impact of localized ozone pollution on these environmental treasures. It doesn’t just affect our trees, either; it impacts our wildlife, our rivers and our oceans too.

It’s time to act to ensure a healthy community. Stop the monetary benefit of big oil companies. Stop being poisoned for profit. And yes, the air we breathe makes us sick.


Rosanna Esparza is a gerontologist and environmental health ethnographer. She is an independent contractor on a special project for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in Delano. She moved to Kern County in 2014 to put her skills to good use and fight for environmental justice as if her life depends on it.


  • 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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