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Air Pollutants in California

Updated on August 9, 2010
San Bernardino, CA. (August) Photo courtesy Mikeetc, Wikipedia.
San Bernardino, CA. (August) Photo courtesy Mikeetc, Wikipedia.

Average Day-to-Day Air Quality in California

The majority of the counties days fall in to:  Blue (excellent), Green (good), Moderate (yellow), unhealthy (for sensitive groups) (red). Counties in gray: no data.
The majority of the counties days fall in to: Blue (excellent), Green (good), Moderate (yellow), unhealthy (for sensitive groups) (red). Counties in gray: no data.

Worst Air Pollution in The US

Earlier this month (May '09), I visited Fresno, California. People ask "why did you go to Fresno? That's the armpit of California". I believe Bakersfield is, but I understood what they were saying. Fresno isn't actually that terrible, but the bad air quality is... intense.

I have never visited a place in April and been so disgusted (relative to the month), with the poor air quality. I've been to Houston before, in August, and witnessed black skies surrounding us--we couldn't even roll down the window at a local Wendy's to order food without coughing. Sadly, that seems normal for Houston in August.

Anyways, back in California: Smog season is rolling around earlier and earlier every year and it's beginning to bother me. I decided to do some research, make some maps, and humble myself with California's notoriously poor air quality.

This year's first unhealthy (for sensitive groups) air day for California was April 23rd, and it was for the Bakersfield area. Why does this area experience consistent "unhealthy air days" for (it seems) more than half the year?

Intensive agriculture in the area (a sixteen billion dollar a-year industry for the San Joaquin valley as a whole) is notorious for generating air pollutants. Also, Diesel trucks along I-5 traveling from the Sacramento / Bay area to and from Los Angeles (LA) are a primary polluter as well. Last but not least, the geography of the area traps pollutants during the day--since Bakersfield is surrounded on three sides (south, west and east) by mountainous terrain that holds in the pollutants until 6-8pm. The lack of wind in the San Joaquin valley doesn't help either. The city of Bakersfield has 300,000+ people, with millions of Californians residing in the San Joaquin valley, many not far from Bakersfield.

A common myth is that LA greatly ads to the San Joaquin valley's air pollution problem. This is not true--little if any smog from the LA / Inland empire arrives in the lower San Joaquin valley, since the valley is two hours north of LA, and the prevailing winds in the LA area flow from west to east. LA's air pollution travels east to the inland empire.

Other areas of California that experience dreadful pollution is San Bernardino and Riverside counties (Inland Empire), since they receive most of the air pollutants from LA, where a third of California's population lives. An additional tenth of California's population lives in the inland empire region.

Back in the San Joaquin valley, air pollutants in the Fresno-Visalia area (two hours north of Bakersfield) are nearly as bad as the Inland empire (and when combined with Bakersfield, is actually worse). The Sacramento area also experiences a very high amount of unhealthy air quality days as well; due to smog from the Bay Area, intensive agriculture in the Sacramento area and an inability for bad air to escape the Central Valley during the day.

Del Norte and Trinity countries were found to have the best air quality in the state, by far, due to their distance from bustling cities and favorable geography for dissipating air pollutants.

Highest Amount of Pollutants Registered at Least One Day of The Year (See Caption)

Red signifies that the county experiences at least one unhealthy (85+ PPM) day per year, Dark red (200+ PPM a year), Black (300+ PPM a year).  Black means forest wildfires occurred that year.
Red signifies that the county experiences at least one unhealthy (85+ PPM) day per year, Dark red (200+ PPM a year), Black (300+ PPM a year). Black means forest wildfires occurred that year.

Particulate Matter & Ozone Explained

Air pollutants fall in to two categories: Particulate matter (PM) and ozone.

There are two types of particulate matter: PM 2.5 (2.5 micrometers in size, not easily expelled by the lungs) and PM 10 (10 micrometers in size, somewhat easier for lungs to expel). Particulate matter is: Agitated soot, dust, loose soil, and micro-debris. Construction equipment, agricultural equipment, and power plants (coal), and wildfires are primary generators of PM 2.5 & PM 10.

Ozone is primarily generated by vehicle (airplanes included) exhaust & agricultural equipment exhaust, aerosols, power plants (oil, gas), factories and anything that burns gases (or gasoline).

Lung Damage, Statistics and Final Thoughts

At 85 Particulates per million (PPM), lung damage begins to occur with every breathe, yet the AQI index has unhealthy (for sensitive groups) rating start at 100+ PPM, which I find to be arbitrary. Thus, I feel this rating should start at 85 PPM, and my 'day-to-day' map reflects that. When particulate matter gets above 85 PPM, imagine that a smoker is constantly around you at that point--that's the damage your lungs are receiving. Air quality is worst from 3-6pm, and begins to clear up between 6pm-8pm. This has to do with temperature inversion (traps the bad air close to the ground), atmospheric conditions, and a weak sea breeze that naturally flows in to the valley at night.

1 in 6 children have asthma in Fresno, 3x higher than the national average. 4000-6000 Californians die an early death each year due to complications from living in an area with poor air quality too long (I've heard estimates as high as 23,000).


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    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 8 years ago from malang-indonesia

      It looks terrible. with many Air Pollutants around us. Make us unhealthy. Your picture tell about the fact.

    • E. A. Wright profile image

      E. A. Wright 8 years ago from New York City

      Ick, but great topic. Sad but true: The first time I saw a truly deep blue sky, I was not in California.

    • profile image

      Hannah Whatley 8 years ago

      The central valley altogether is :X

      Very informative I find it to be true!

      Feel free to add me :)