Local air officials on Wednesday said they’re not surprised Merced remains among the worst places in the country for air quality, although there is some good news to report.
On Wednesday the American Lung Association released its State of the Air report, which determined the air in the county can put residents’ health at risk.
The 15th annual national report, which graded cities based on their scores for ozone and particle pollution levels, rated the Merced-Modesto area among the top 10 most polluted areas in the country.
Merced is among several counties in the San Joaquin Valley that received a failing grade, along with Fresno, Madera, Visalia and Bakersfield.
Merced ranked No. 7 in the list of cities with the most ozone pollution, dropping down from the 11th spot obtained in last year’s report. However, Merced did see some improvement in year-round particle pollution. In this year’s report, Merced ranked No. 5 in the list of worst particle pollution, whereas last year it ranked No. 1 alongside Bakersfield.
San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District officials said the State of the Air report helps bring attention to the Valley’s serious air quality issues; however, it does not tell the whole story.
“It’s no surprise that the report puts San Joaquin Valley counties in the top 25 (most polluted) list as we face challenges unmatched by any other area in the nation,” said Anthony Presto, a spokesman for the air district. “What isn’t being highlighted is the fact that the San Joaquin Valley has made huge improvements in air quality.”
Because the report is based on pollution data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency from 2010 to 2012, it is not the most up-to-date data. Last year the Valley had its cleanest summer on record, but that isn’t revealed in this year’s report, Presto said.
According to the air district, the Valley’s challenges in combating air pollution are unique in comparison to other areas because of its geography, topography and meteorology.
“It’s not that we create more air pollution than other metropolitan areas, like Los Angeles or the Bay Area,” Presto said. “We actually create a great deal less. However, our valley has a very low tolerance for pollution, reaching unhealthy levels very quickly, and no coastal winds to help clean it out.”
The Fresno-Madera area ranked No. 1 in having the worst exposure to particle pollution in the country. The Los Angeles area has the worst ozone pollution, according to the data.
This year’s cleanest cities are Bangor, Maine; Bismarck, N.D; Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla.; and Salinas.
American Lung Association leaders said the report indicated an overall improvement in air quality throughout the country.
“We are happy to report continued reduction of year-round particle pollution across the nation, thanks to cleaner diesel fleets and cleaner power plants,” said Harold Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association. “However, this improvement represents only a partial victory.”
“We know that warmer temperatures increase risk for ozone pollution, so climate change sets the stage for tougher challenges to protect human health,” he said.
Since its formation in 1992, the air district has reduced 108,000 tons of emissions through incentive programs that encourage the use of new technology to improve air quality, Presto explained.
“We have a long way to go to reach our clean-air goals in the San Joaquin Valley,” he said, “but a great deal of progress has also been made.”
Despite the efforts, poor air quality continues to be a significant public health concern.
People who face a higher risk of health issues related to pollution include children, older adults, those with heart disease, diabetes or asthma and anyone who works and exercises outdoors.
According to the American Lung Association, dangerous levels of ozone or particle pollution can cause coughing, asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death.