Sooty smog plagues California

Record dry weather prolongs sooty haze

January 24, 2014

"Itís not just an inconvenience, itís a significant health issue"

— Dr. Sunil Saini

California’s exceptionally dry winter is having a visible consequence: bad air.

After the driest year on record in 2013, California is facing its driest January ever, and the dryness mixed with pollution is unhealthy, officials say. Gov. jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on January 14th.

A high-pressure zone off the West Coast that has been warding off rain for months has worsened air pollution across California and the Southwest. The stagnant conditions have trapped fine particles close to the ground, leaving a buildup of soot haze that poses a threat to people’s health.

California officials issued an unprecedented number of no-burn alerts banning wood fires in homes, but officials at clinics report treating more patients than usual who have trouble breathing, tightness in their chest, itchy eyes and runny noses.

“It’s not just an inconvenience, it’s a significant health issue,” said Dr. Sunil Saini, an allergist in Upland. Saini said he typically sees a drop-off in patients with respiratory problems starting in December. “This year we haven’t seen that decrease.”

The air has been so unhealthful at times in the San Joaquin Valley, government officials issued dozens of Level 5 advisories—the highest on their five-point scale—and urged people to stay indoors.

The region, with some of the dirtiest basins in the nation, usually counts on a few big winter storms to scour away pollution. Santa Ana winds and short-lived breezes have circulated the air a bit, but it hasn’t been enough, air quality officials said.

Though cars, diesel trucks, trains and industrial stacks spew fine particles and other pollutants year round, the concentrations people breathe are largely driven by weather conditions said Barbara Finlayson-Pitts, and atmospheric chemist at UC Irvine.

Parched conditions also have raised the risk of fire, as many Southern Californians saw last week when a plume of smoke billowed out from a brush fire near Glendora, prompting air quality advisories.

A 2010 report by the California Air Resources Board estimated that 9,200 people in the state die prematurely each year because of exposure to fine particle pollution, most of them in Southern California.


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