Marin scores an 'A' for air quality

(April 27, 2011)

marin-independent-journal

April 27, 2011

Breathe deep Marin — the air around you is pretty darn clean, according to a report card issued by the American Lung Association on Wednesday.

The county received an "A" for its air quality, joining other Bay Area coastside counties of Sonoma, San Francisco and San Mateo.

"A lot of the grade has to do with geography," said Jenny Bard, American Lung Association regional director. "The 'A's' tend to go to the coast counties that have a moderate climate and the benefit of breezes that blow eastward."

The report measured how many days each county exceeded federal health standards for ground-level ozone, commonly called smog, and fine particle pollution such as diesel soot during 2007, 2008 and 2009.

The lung association tallied up the total number of days in which soot and smog exceeded air quality standards and then assigned grades. For ozone, counties had to have no days during the three years over the federal standard to get an "A." If they had more than three days a year, they were given an "F."

Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Solano counties all got an "F" grade. Alameda had the most high ozone days above air standards at 14. Napa received a "C" grade.

Even though Marin received a top grade, it doesn't mean the county's completely free of air quality issues, officials said.

"Wood smoke in Marin is still a huge issue," Bard said. "The most complaints about wood smoke are in Marin. The grade is not reflective of local exposures that can be quite high. Wood smoke in Marin is a big problem that needs attention."

Last winter Marin led Bay Area counties in the number of complaints about wood smoke on "Spare the Air" days, according to Bay Area Air Quality Management District data. The enforcement period was from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28.

It was the third year the district cracked down on people who burn wood on days when weather conditions make it likely smoke will hang in the air and cause particulate pollution, making it hard for some people to breathe.

During the period, the district received 301 complaints from Marin residents about smoke on the four days that air alerts were declared.

"Wood burning in the winter months is a serious pollutant," said Lisa Fasano, spokeswoman for the air district. Fasano said people need to take steps to reduce particulate air pollution including "yes, not burning in fireplaces."

Bad air can have an impact on the county's most vulnerable residents. Of Marin's 250,750 residents, 51,078 are under 18, while 40,694 are 65 and older. The two groups are most susceptible to poor air.

In addition, 15,603 adults in the county have asthma, as do 3,388 children. Another 9,301 people have chronic bronchitis and 5,035 have emphysema.

Fasano said the new rules that began in 2008 have helped limit wood smoke across the Bay Area.

"The pollution from wood smoke is less," Fasano said. "People are heeding the call and burning less."

And in general air quality is improving across the state because of federal Clean Air Act standards passed in 1970, which sought to lower emissions.

"Air quality has improved significantly in California since our first report 11 years ago," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the lung association in California. "People can do more, like change out wood stoves with natural gas models. We are making concrete progress, but we can't relax."