The pollution problem

Is it as bad as the data suggest?

The American Lung Association recently issued a national “state of the air” study in which it ranked the worst areas in the country to live in by crunching government data on ozone, smog’s main ingredient. The study found that 142 million Americans live in areas where ozone endangers their health. The four worst cities are all in California, and three of those are in the Central Valley. Of the 10 worst cities, five are in the Central Valley.

The 10 worst cities nationwide for air quality are, in order of severity of the problem: 1) Los Angeles, 2) Bakersfield, 3) Fresno, 4) Visalia, 5) Houston, Texas, 6) Atlanta, Ga., 7) Merced, 8) Knoxville, Tenn., 9) Charlotte, N.C., and 10) Sacramento.

At least one local expert questions the figures.

“I don’t think the study is particularly fair,” says Gail Williams, of the Butte County Air Quality Management District. “Their data may be there, but how they represent it can be misleading. Chico has only had 12 days of non-attainment status [exceeding the air quality standard] in the last three years, and we’re getting the same failing grade as a place like Los Angeles that has about 180 bad days a year.”

Williams explains that the stringent grading was based on very small numbers of bad ozone days—one a year for the last three years automatically meant a “C” grade—which is why more than half the counties in California received failing grades. The areas with the least population had the better grades.

“Plus they don’t say how many of these areas were affected by transport pollution, like us,” she adds. “Studies like these may just confuse the public.”

Williams says that the pollutant that should really concern the public is the finest particulate matter—PM 2.5, or 2.5 microns in size (a human hair is 70 microns wide). This substance, which gets in the lungs and stays there, potentially causing problems, comes from incomplete combustion from things like old wood heaters, of which there are many in the area.

Williams says her studies find higher levels of ozone in Paradise, where more transported air from Sacramento winds up with no place to go, while Chico has a higher particulate matter problem and may soon become designated a non-attainment area.

"We’re looking at incentives for cleaning out old wood stoves," she says. "Right now we haven’t identified any funds yet, but the district is looking at the problem."