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More Than 90 Percent of Californians Live With Unhealthy Air

Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio

Air pollution from soot hovers over the Central Valley in 2016.

Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio

The American Lung Association says California cities continue to have the most polluted air in the country. The annual State of the Air report also finds wildfires and drought are contributing to an increased number of days with air pollution from soot.

The report analyzes the most recent data available from air quality monitors. This year’s report looked at data from 2013 to 2015, during the height of the drought.

“Our state’s air quality continues to hit unhealthy levels each year, putting Californians at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma, COPD, and lung cancer,” said Olivia Diaz-Lapham, President and CEO of the American Lung Association in California.

People living in the Los Angeles metropolitan area still breathe the most smog, although there were fewer unhealthy ozone pollution days. Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Visalia, Modesto-Merced, Sacramento, El Centro, San Jose-San Francisco and San Luis Obispo had the fewest average unhealthy days for ozone pollution in the 18-year history of the report.

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The State of the Air report shows setbacks in the fight against soot or particle pollution, which can come from wood combustion and diesel engines. It’s especially pronounced in the San Joaquin Valley. Four of eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley saw increases in the number of polluted days, with Stockton and Visalia having the worst years ever.  Bakersfield tops the list of cities that saw the most short-term spikes in particle pollution. Even San Francisco and Sacramento saw increases in the number of bad days for particle pollution.

The report authors say wildfires during those drought years were especially bad and contributed to the uptick. Local air quality managers agree.

“The spike in particulates are absolutely related to fires,” says Larry Greene, executive director of the Sacramento Air Quality Management District. “Those blooms can go on for days… that pollution is still in the air impacting people’s health.” The Sierra Nevada’s largest fire, the Rim Fire, burned more than 250,000 acres near Yosemite National Park in 2013. The King Fire burned more than 97,000 acres a year later. Air quality data during that time was analyzed in the report.

Year-round levels of particle pollution also increased in Bakersfield, San Francisco, Visalia, and San Luis Obispo, which failed to meet the national standard for year round particle pollution for the first time.

Salinas was recognized as one of the cleanest cities in the US. It has no unhealthy ozone days and one of the lowest year-round particle pollution levels.