Report airs out Central Valley pollution dilemma

Annual “State of the Air” report finds unhealthy levels of pollution all across the Valley; Tulare, Fresno counties, cities rank high in most polluted regions across nation

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. – The American Lung Association released its 25th annual “State of the Air” report, and the news is not good for residents of the Central Valley.

In the report, Tulare County, Fresno, Kern, Kings and 26 other California counties received failing grades for the three measures of pollution – unhealthy ozone pollution days, unhealthy particle pollution days and/or annual particle pollution levels. But unlike Fresno, which saw marginal improvement in the number of its ozone days, Visalia took a major step backward by its highest number of unhealthy particle days in the history of the report.

This year, Visalia ranked fifth for cities most polluted by short-term particle pollution and ranked second for year-round particle pollution. It also ranked second for the most ozone-polluted city. Visalia, Bakersfield and Fresno are the only cities in the country to rank among the five most polluted for all three pollution categories in the report.

And like Fresno, Kern and Kings counties for the years 2020-2022, Tulare County as a whole received failing grades for high ozone days and high particle pollution days – over a 24-hour period and annually.

The city of Fresno received mixed grades, albeit mostly bad. On the plus side, the city scored its best report for ozone pollution. In 2000, Fresno had 174 ozone days. That number dropped to 52 in this latest report.

Despite this passing grade, Fresno received failing grades in various categories. Overall, Fresno County ranked sixth in ozone rankings, behind the fourth-ranked Tulare County and fifth-ranked Kern County. The rankings included 25 counties from across the country; California boasted 15 of the 25 counties in the list.

Fresno County ranked second, behind Kern, for the worst particle pollution. For 2024, the Fresno-Madera-Hartford trinity ranked second, behind Bakersfield, as the city most polluted by short-term particle pollution. Visalia ranked fifth.

The ranking is based on 11 categories, including total population; people under age 18; people ages 65 and over; pediatric asthma; adult asthma; COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease); lung cancer; Cardiovascular diseases; pregnancies; people of color and poverty.

With respect to cities suffering the worst year-round particle pollution, Bakersfield ranked first, Visalia second, and Fresno-Madera-Hartford third. This ranking relied on the same categories as above save for lung cancer.

As mentioned above, Fresno did make progress in reducing its ozone days. But Fresno-Madera-Hartford ranked fourth, behind Visalia and Bakersfield, for people at risk in ozone-polluted cities. The 10 categories for determining year-round particle pollution were employed for this ranking.

Clearing California’s air

According to the report, the Valley has the most particle-polluted communities in the country. And Bakersfield is, unequivocally, the most polluted city. The city also earned the dubious distinction of ranking third in the nation for unhealthy ozone days and compared to last year’s report, it saw worsening levels on all three pollutant measures.

In the news release that accompanied the air report, Will Barret, senior director for Nationwide Clean Advocacy with the Lung Association, stressed that California’s policies need to move towards zero-emission vehicles and operations, saying they are crucial for tackling pollution and promoting public health while addressing disparities.

“California needs additional actions by the EPA to support local clean up and for the agency to approve California’s clean air programs to bring the benefits of these programs to life without further delay,” Barret said.

Californians, in general, breathe the most polluted air in the county. Nine out of 10 Californians live in communities that have failing grades for unhealthy ozone pollution days, unhealthy particle pollution days and/or annual particle pollution levels. Eight of 10 Californians live in communities with failing grades in each of these categories.

It should come as no surprise that Southern California continues to be the country’s most ozone-impacted region and for the 24th time, Los Angeles-Long Beach claimed the top spot for the smoggiest metro area in the U.S.

According to the report, San Bernardino County experienced significant improvements in all report categories. But the improvements were not enough to topple the county as being the most polluted in the country with an annual average of 175 unhealthy ozone pollution days.

“With a quarter-century of air pollution data behind it, ‘State of the Air 2024’ clearly shows that progress is being made,” said Mariela Ruacho, senior manager for Clean Air Advocacy with the American Lung Association.

She added, “California must aggressively tackle air and climate pollution by maintaining strong policies and budget priorities. This is not the time to slow or cut state investments supporting those living in communities that bear the greatest burden of unhealthy air.”

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