SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY Cost of polluted air in billions, study says

(03-30) 04:00 PDT Sacramento -

- Poor air quality costs the San Joaquin Valley $3 billion a year in asthma attacks, premature deaths, lost work days, school absences and hospital admissions, a study released Wednesday found.
If air quality in the eight-county region were brought up to federal ozone and dust standards, an average of $1,000 for each of the valley's 3.3 million residents would be saved. If the air was improved to meet California's tougher air quality standards, the savings would double.
"Nobody escapes from this. Everyone in the valley is exposed to some degree," said Jane Hall, a co-author of the study and a co-director of the Institute for Economic and Environmental Studies a California State University Fullerton. "But there are a lot of options to combat this, and the benefits of improving the air quality are substantial," Hall said.
The study is the first of its type to place a price tag on the health and economic losses caused by the region's air quality, some of the worst in the nation.
Only Los Angeles and Houston rival the pollution levels found in the counties of the San Joaquin Valley: Fresno, Kings, Tulare, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera and Kern.
The rate of asthma in the region is high -- 12 percent of school-aged children have it.
In much of California, including Los Angeles, ozone levels have fallen, but that is not the case in the valley.
While it is no secret the valley suffers from poor air quality, the report -- "The Health and Related Economic Benefits of Attaining Healthful Air in the San Joaquin Valley" -- catalogues the human costs that pollution causes.
Annually, the study found that human cost to include: 460 premature deaths among people age 30 and older, 23,000 asthma attacks, 3,230 cases of acute bronchitis in children, and 188,000 days of school absences.
Those costs also include 3,000 lost work days 188,400 days of reduced activity in adults, 260 hospital admissions, and 17,000 days of respiratory problems in children.
Residents of Kern and Fresno counties have the worst air quality, and because ozone levels are elevated in the summer and particulate matter in the winter, the region experiences no "clean" season, the study noted. Hispanics and African Americans were exposed to more days of unhealthy air than other valley residents.
"A key piece of this is the disproportionate health impact on children and African Americans and Hispanics," said Dr. Helen Jones, a Fresno physician since 1988.
Local air pollution officials, whose authority covers stationary polluters but not vehicles, say the study will help when they argue for tougher vehicle emissions standards.
"When we go to the state and federal government to plead our case, this lends weight to our argument. And without stronger state and federal emissions controls, we can't reach attainment," said Kelly Morphy, a spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Since it was created in 1992, the pollution control district has adopted about 500 rules that have created a 50 percent reduction in pollution caused by stationary sources.
An air pollution fee was placed on new large-scale residential and commercial development by the district in December. It was the first action of its kind in the country.
The region's population is expected to grow by 131 percent to 7.9 million by 2050, compounding the air pollution, absent some action.
"The rate of growth clearly makes it a challenge. But Los Angeles had heavy population growth, particularly in the Inland Empire, and they've improved air quality. It's difficult but doable," said Fred Lurmann of Sonoma Technology Inc., a co-author of the study.

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