Plagued by polluted air: Is the San Joaquin Valley at increased asthma risk?

LA_smog_masksFirst things first.

Keep in mind that from now until the middle of February the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is conducting aerial air pollution reconnaissance in the skies over the San Joaquin Valley, a purpose of which is “… to help scientists better understand how to observe ground-level pollution from space,” according to NASA.

Secondly, in continuing discussion from Jan. 28, 2013, in the Jan. 27, 2013 The Fresno Bee article: “Valley air district’s $500m fund key to curbing diesel pollution,” environmental reporter Mark Grossi wrote: “The Valley has made plenty of progress, [San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Executive Director Seyed] Sadredin said. He illustrated by comparing ozone violations over the last decade for the federal one-hour ozone standard. He said the Valley violated it 56 times 10 years ago. Now, it happens fewer than five times a year.”

Such improvement cannot be denied. But, what is the ultimate progress barometer here, anyway?

Should it not be based on corresponding public health improvement? Should that not be our measure? It’s what I would call the “bottom-line issue,” because it’s the one in my mind’s eye that is most telling.

Case in point: In 2007 in The Fresno Bee’s special report: “Fighting For Air,” columnist Barbara Anderson reported (based on data from a 2005 survey) that the number of Fresno County childhood asthma cases had grown from 50,000 in 2003, to almost one in three or about 75,000 in 2007, a 50 percent increase in just four years. Fresno County, incidentally, has been declared the state’s asthma capital.1

Moreover, “More than one in five Valley children has asthma — the highest level in the state. And researchers fear more than one in four children could have the chronic lung disease within the next few years,” Anderson emphasized.

Consider, if you will, the implications. In fact, in opening the article, Anderson insisted, “Across the San Joaquin Valley, thousands of children start the day by inhaling asthma drugs. Many Valley doctors and parents blame dirty air for an asthma epidemic.”

And as for Anderson’s “asthma epidemic” reference, I look at this and think that’s a harsh pill to swallow and wonder: how bad do things need to be before we see some real improvement? I wholeheartedly believe the direful situation need not get any more direful before there is improvement and along these lines I would hate to think conditions would have to hit rock bottom before any real change is made. But is this where the Valley is headed?

Anderson also made this point: “Researchers are not yet ready to say dirty air causes asthma, but they know that dirty air stunts children’s lungs and worsens asthma and bronchitis attacks. Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, rubs like sandpaper against delicate lung tissue. And particulates — tiny bits of soot, chemicals and dust — irritate and inflame lungs.”

Whether or not polluted air can be nailed down as the root cause of asthma in the Valley is not near as important in my view as understanding that this disease has reached epidemic proportions. And that, in and of itself, should be cause enough to want to do everything possible – and the sooner the better – to rid the Valley’s air of heart- and lung-damaging air pollution. If it is not then what part of the “big picture” am I not seeing?

I, for one, feel that until significant air-pollution-cleanup strides have been made and the Valley is out of the dirty air woods and no longer on the American Lung Association’s (ALA) list of America’s 10 worst regions for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and ozone (O3), I just don’t see how millions of Valley inhabitants can rest – or, for that matter, breathe – easy.

Being on the ALA’s PM 2.5 and O3 list, hurts. We can and must do better! Before this can happen, though, the impetus to want to do better must be there – there has to be the will, in other words.


  1. Barbara Anderson, “Fresno is state’s asthma capital,” “Fighting for Air,” The Fresno Bee, Dec. 16, 2007, p. 5.
California's flat, expansive and agriculturally-robust but often air-pollution-shrouded San Joaquin Valley
California’s flat, expansive and agriculturally-robust but often air-pollution-shrouded San Joaquin Valley

– Alan Kandel