Tulare County’s air has improved in the last 20 years but remains unhealthy for smog and soot, primarily due to climate change
TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County is still among the nation’s most polluted places for air quality but it has seen improvements in the last two decades.
A new report from the American Lung Association finds more than 4 in 10 people (135 million) in the U.S. live with polluted air, placing their health and lives at risk. The 22nd annual “State of the Air” report shows that people of color were 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than white people, and three times more likely to live in a county that failed all three air quality grades. While the report finds some improvements in the nation’s air quality, it is clear that in many parts of the country climate change is making our air quality worse.
“This report shines a spotlight on the urgent need to curb climate change, clean up air pollution and advance environmental justice,” said American Lung Association president and CEO Harold Wimmer. “The nation has a real opportunity to address all three at once – and to do that, we must center on health and health equity as we move away from combustion and fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.”
This year’s “State of the Air” finds many western communities again experiencing record-breaking spikes in particle pollution largely due to smoke from wildfires. Changing climate patterns fuel wildfires, and also drive warmer temperatures that lead to more ground-level ozone pollution. This degraded air quality threatens everyone, especially children, older adults and people living with a lung disease. The 2021 “State of the Air” report analyzes data from 2017, 2018 and 2019, the three years with the most recent quality-assured data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Notably, those three years were among the six hottest in recorded global history.
Tulare County ranked third on the list of areas with the highest levels of year-round particulate matter, as well as third for ozone and 11 for 24-hour, or short-term, particulate matter. There are more than 10,000 cases of pediatric asthma, 25,000 cases of adult asthma, 13,000 cases of COPD, 19,000 for lung cancer in Tulare County. Tulare County’s air received a grade of F for ozone, particulate matter and failed in terms of annual particulate pollution.
That isn’t to say things haven’t improved. In 2020, Tulare County has had 56 fewer high ozone days, 14 fewer high particulate pollution days and dropped its annual particulate pollution by 7.7 micrograms of pollution per cubic meter of air (ug/m3), reaching its lowest point since 2010.
Oh no, ozone
Ozone is a gas molecule composed of three oxygen atoms. The ozone layer found high in the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere) shields us from much of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. However, at ground level where we can breathe it (in the troposphere), ozone causes serious health problems. Often called “smog,” ozone is harmful to breathe. Ozone aggressively attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it.
Breathing ozone can shorten your life. Strong evidence exists of the deadly impact of ozone from large studies conducted in cities across the U.S., in Europe and in Asia. Researchers repeatedly found that the risk of premature death increased with higher levels of ozone.9 Newer research has confirmed that ozone increased the risk of premature death even when other pollutants also are present.
Immediate breathing problems. Many areas in the United States produce enough ozone during the summer months to cause health problems that can be felt right away. Immediate problems—in addition to increased risk of premature death—include:
shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing;
increased risk of respiratory infections;
increased susceptibility to pulmonary inflammation; and
increased need for people with lung diseases, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), to receive medical treatment and to go to the hospital.
New studies warn of serious effects from breathing ozone over longer periods. With more long-term data, scientists are finding that long-term exposure—that is, for periods longer than eight hours, including days, months or years—may increase the risk of early death.
Examining the records from a long-term national database, researchers found a higher risk of death from respiratory diseases associated with increases in ozone.
New York researchers looking at hospital records for children’s asthma found that the risk of admission to hospitals for asthma increased with chronic exposure to ozone. Younger children and children from low-income families were more likely than other children to need hospital admissions even during the same time periods.
Studies link lower birth weight and decreased lung function in newborns to ozone levels in their community.17 This research provides increasing evidence that ozone may harm newborns.
Breathing other pollutants in the air may make your lungs more responsive to ozone—and breathing ozone may increase your body’s response to other pollutants.
Breathing ozone may also increase the response to allergens in people with allergies. A large study published in 2009 found that children were more likely to suffer from hay fever and respiratory allergies when ozone and PM2.5 levels were high.
Particle pollution refers to a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe. Many of the particles are so small as to be invisible, but when levels are high, the air becomes opaque, commonly referred to as soot. It is so dangerous that it can shorten your life.
The particles themselves are different sizes. Some are one-tenth the diameter of a strand of hair. Many are even tinier; some are so small they can only be seen with an electron microscope. Because of their size, you cannot see the individual particles. You can only see the haze that forms when millions of particles blur the spread of sunlight.
Researchers categorize particles according to size, grouping them as coarse, fine and ultrafine. Coarse particles fall between 2.5 microns and 10 microns in diameter and are called PM. Fine particles 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller and are called PM 2.5. Ultrafine particles are smaller than 0.1 micron in diameter and are small enough to pass through the lung tissue into the blood stream, circulating like the oxygen molecules themselves. No matter what the size, particles can harm your health.
The differences in size make a big difference in where particles affect us. Our natural defenses help us to cough or sneeze some coarse particles out of our bodies. However, those defenses do not keep out smaller fine or ultrafine particles. These particles get trapped in the lungs, while the smallest are so minute that they can pass through the lungs into the bloodstream, just like the essential oxygen molecules we need to survive.
As the EPA puts it, particles are really “a mixture of mixtures.” The mixtures differ between different regions in the United States and in different times of the year. Much of that comes from the sources that produce the particles. For example, nitrate particles from motor vehicle exhaust form a larger proportion of the unhealthful mix in the winter in western states, especially California and portions of the Midwest. By contrast, eastern states have more sulfate particles than the West on average, largely due to the high levels of sulfur dioxide emitted by large, coal-fired power plants.
Short-term exposure can be deadly
First, short-term exposure to particle pollution can kill. Peaks or spikes in particle pollution can last from hours to days. Premature deaths from breathing these particles can occur on the very day that particle levels are high, or within one to two months afterward. Particle pollution does not just make people die a few days earlier than they might otherwise—these deaths would not have occurred so early if the air were cleaner.
Even low levels of particles can be deadly. In a 2017 study, researchers found more evidence that older adults faced a higher risk of premature death even when levels of short-term particle pollution remained well below the current national standards. This was consistent whether the older adults lived in cities, suburbs or rural areas. Some of the strongest research has documented that short-term exposure to particle pollution causes premature death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes.
Particle pollution also has many other harmful effects, ranging from decreased lung function to heart attacks. Extensive research has linked short-term increases in particle pollution to:
- increased mortality in infants;
- increased hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and ischemic heart disease;
- increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for COPD;
- increased hospitalization for asthma among children; and
- increased severity of asthma attacks in children.
Landmark studies in the 1990s conclusively showed, and later studies verified, long-term exposure to particle pollution still kills, even with the declining levels in the U.S. since 2000. In 2013, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (known as IARC), part of the World Health Organization, concluded that particle pollution causes lung cancer. The IARC based its decision on the review of multiple studies from the U.S., Europe, and Asia and the presence of carcinogens on the particles.
Research has also linked year-round exposure to particle pollution to:
- development of asthma in children;
- worsening of COPD in adults;
- slowed lung function growth in children and teenagers;
- increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease; and
- increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Studies examining the impact on the nervous system of long-term exposure to particle pollution have found links to cognitive affects in adults including reduced brain volume, cognitive decrements and dementia. Scientists have found evidence that particle pollution may impact pregnancy and birth outcomes, such as preterm birth, low birth weight and fetal and infant mortality.
The American Lung Association says individuals can reduce their risk of bad air can:
- Check daily air pollution forecasts in your area. The color-coded forecasts can let you know when the air is unhealthy in your community. Sources include local radio and TV weather reports, newspapers and online at airnow.gov.
- Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high. When the air is bad, use an indoor exercise machine, or walk indoors in a shopping mall or gym once it’s safe to spend time in indoor public spaces. Limit the amount of time your child spends playing outdoors if the air quality is unhealthy.
- Always avoid exercising near high-traffic areas. Even when air quality forecasts are green, the vehicles on busy highways can create high pollution levels up to one-third a mile away.
- Protect yourself from wildfire smoke if you live in a fire-prone area. Learn more about using masks and creating a clean room inside your home with our wildfire resources.
- People can also improve the air in their community by taking steps to reduce the amount of pollution they may release into the atmosphere. The American Lung Association offers the following tips to keep harmful pollution out of the air in the first place:
- Drive less. Walk or bike whenever you can. Prioritize public transit for longer distances. If you drive a gas-powered car, combine trips or carpool to cut down on harmful emissions. And if you’re getting ready to buy a car, consider an electric vehicle.
- Use less electricity. Turn out the lights, set your thermostat to reduce energy use when you’re out of the house, and use energy-efficient electric appliances. Generating electricity is one of the biggest sources of pollution, particularly in the eastern United States. If you have the option in your community, buy power from clean, renewable sources.
- Don’t burn wood or trash. Burning wood and trash is among the largest sources of particle pollution in many parts of the country. If you can, swap out your woodstove for an alternative source of heat. Avoid the use of outdoor hydronic heaters, also called outdoor wood boilers, which are frequently much more polluting than woodstoves.
- Compost and recycle as much as possible and dispose of other waste properly; don’t burn it. Support efforts in your community to ban outdoor burning of construction and yard wastes. And skip the firepit or bonfire for outdoor gatherings.
- Make sure your local school system requires cleaner school buses, which includes replacing them with electric buses or retrofitting old school buses with pollution filters and other equipment to reduce emissions. Make sure your local schools don’t idle their buses; this step can immediately reduce emissions. Parents shouldn’t idle in their cars outside of schools either. That exhaust ends up inside idling vehicles, and often gets into classrooms.
- Get involved in your community. Local governments make critical decisions that impact your air quality and our climate, from deciding whether to build bike lanes and sidewalks to determining whether a local industrial facility can expand its operations – and possibly its pollution. You don’t have to be an expert to get involved. Reach out to your representatives, share this report and explain why you want them to protect your family’s health from air pollution when making local planning decisions. You can help put a personal face on the importance of clean air in a way that they’ll remember when it comes time to make decisions.