Climate change, wildfires making air quality in California worse, report finds

The American Lung Association released its 2022 State of the Air report Wednesday, a look at which areas and people are suffering from the worst air quality, and researchers say the findings are clear — climate change and wildfires are making air quality, particularly in Western states, much worse.

“We saw more days with very unhealthy and even hazardous air quality levels than ever before in the two-decade history of the report,” said Will Barrett, a national senior director at the American Lung Association.

That’s particularly true in the Bay Area, which has seen the impacts of increasingly large and destructive wildfires in recent years.

“The wildfire issue has really driven the Bay Area higher and higher on the list,” Barrett said.

The report, which collects data from government air quality monitors, covers 2018, 2019 and 2020, which had the most recent quality-assured nationwide air pollution data publicly available, the Lung Association said. It then analyzes the data to determine how air across the U.S. is affected both by short-term particulate matter and longer-term ozone.

This year, the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland metro area ranked as fourth overall for short-term particulate pollution, which looks at things like spikes in bad air quality — the same ranking as last year’s report, which looked at 2017-2019. But the Bay Area ranked worse this year in terms of annual particulate matter, going up from No. 7 last year to No. 4 this year.

That change is largely because of wildfires driving longer spikes in bad air quality with higher levels of pollution, which drives the annual average higher, Barrett explained — a problem the entire Western U.S. is facing. The report even pointed to the Bay Area’s “orange sky day” in 2020 as a marker of just how bad things have gotten.

“Wildfires in the western U.S. are not only increasing the number of days and places with unhealthy levels of particle pollution. They are also increasing the severity of pollution, resulting in a sharp rise in the number of days designated as either purple or maroon,” the report says.

The association assigns grades to counties based on the number of days that particulate matter levels are unhealthy. Barrett said that 2019 was the first year no Bay Area county saw an A grade. This year, all of them received an F.

“A big part of that in this year’s report is that we’re kind of in that window where we saw the Wine Country fires drop off, but then we picked up the 2020 wildfires that were the worst in state history at that point,” he said.

But the Bay Area improved its ranking for ozone — dropping to 13th from 10th last year. Ozone pollution is largely caused by wood burning in the winter, as well as from transportation — everything from trains and ships down to personal lawnmowers.

Barrett said that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s programs and regulations to reduce pollution from residential wood burning have been “a huge benefit” to reducing ozone pollution. But the ozone pollution that still exists is still troubling as particle pollution layers on top of it, he noted.

The report says that particle pollution and ozone days related to wildfires as well as extreme heat are outpacing policy efforts to clean up the air, which means that governments need to do more and set stronger standards to “better reflect the current science.”

One example of that, Barrett noted, is the Clean Cars and Clean Air Act, a proposed ballot measure that would tax California’s wealthiest residents — those making more than $2 million a year — and channel the funds to helping the state curb wildfires and increase the number of electric cars and trucks on the road.

The report also found that people of color are more than three times more likely to live in communities with the worst air pollution. Barrett noted that this is true in the Bay Area, where people who are lower income and people of color are more likely to live near freeways and ports where they have to deal with more toxic air than the average Bay Area resident.

A recent UC Berkeley study found that predominantly Black and Latino communities had higher concentrations of pollutants — and that many of these neighborhoods were the same communities that endured racially discriminatory housing policies, such as redlining, during the 20th century.

“There are significant disparities that need to be addressed, and policies and investments really need to be targeted to cleaning up the air where it’s most damaging today” in order to address “the legacy of essentially racist land use practices,” Barrett said.

Danielle Echeverria is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @DanielleEchev

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