Lung Association gives region 'F' on air quality

(April 27, 2011)

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April 27, 2011


Despite recent improvements in air quality, the American Lung Association has flunked San Diego and Riverside counties on air pollution standards in its annual State of the Air report.

The association gave both counties an F.

"Even though we are seeing tremendous good signs, we still have a significant number of days when residents are breathing unhealthy air," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the American Lung Association in California.

The group's annual report card grades urban areas nationwide on air quality levels, based on its analysis of data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Each annual report examines the three previous years' worth of monitoring data.

However, critics say the report unfairly overstates air quality violations and uses methodology that's different from federal law.

"They rate it differently than what the feds require," said Bob Kard, air pollution control officer for the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District. "Even though we might be doing OK under federal law, we don't pass under (American Lung Association) readings.

"We give the report very little credibility."

According to the ALA's report, the Los Angeles area, which includes Riverside County, averaged 137 days that topped federal ozone limits from 2007 through 2009 ---- the latest three-year period covered in the report ---- a drop of 28 percent over the 190 high-ozone days recorded from 1996 through 1998.

San Diego County saw an average of 30 high-ozone days per year from 2007 through 2009, a 50 percent decline over the three-year period from 1996 through 1998, when 60 days were above ozone limits.

The association also analyzed particle pollution, or the number of fine particles of soot in the air.

Spikes in particle pollution in the L.A./Riverside area dropped from 62 in the period from 2003 through 2005, when the organization began reporting particle levels, to 25 per year in the recent report. In San Diego, days with high levels of particle pollution dropped from 13 to nine between the same periods.

Ozone exposure aggravates asthma, respiratory infections, chronic lung diseases and other lung functions, while fine particles lodge in lungs and increase the risk of lung cancer, heart attack and stroke, health studies show. Both kinds of pollution increase rates of hospitalization and death, particularly in the young, sick, and elderly.

Officials with the lung organization said the numbers show continued problems with air pollution, but also substantial progress.

"The regulations, the improvements to vehicle technology and the changes people are making to their personal lives have really paid off," said Debra Kelley, senior director of advocacy for the association in California.

In San Diego County, those measures include building rail lines, reducing tailpipe emissions from cars and adding pollution control measures at the Port of San Diego. Kelley said it's noteworthy that the county has reduced air pollution levels despite its growing population, which increased 10 percent over the past decade, according to 2010 Census figures.

"We're always fighting the increase in population, and trying to offset that with new technology, and getting people to use their cars," she said.

Kard said the ALA applies stricter standards than federal law requires, adding that the association's report card understates the region's progress in improving air quality.

According to federal air quality law, he said, not all days that exceed air pollution standards count against a region's record. By that measure, San Diego County recently went two consecutive years without exceeding air pollution standards, and may finish a third year without incident.

"That's a far different picture than what the ALA paints, of an 'F' grade for our air quality," Kard said.

However, Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which includes Riverside County, said figures cited in the report are "an appropriate reflection of air quality in the county."

"The lung association report just confirms the very serious public health threat we do face from air pollution," he said. "Riverside County has some of the worst air quality in the nation. It definitely affects everyone from the very young to the elderly, with health effects that range from mild symptoms, such as a headache, up to and including premature death from long-term exposure to air pollution."

But the report card also reflects a healthier trend throughout the region, he said.

"There's been a dramatic reduction in air pollution, and a corresponding improvement in air quality, which means an improvement in public health."