It is time to raise our voice against poor air quality in the San Joaquin valley which has been known to exacerbate Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), as well as increase risk of respiratory tract infections.
Air pollution is the release of pollutants such as gasses, fine particles or droplets into the air. These pollutants are detrimental to human health and the planet as a whole. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each year air pollution is responsible for nearly seven million deaths around the globe (Turrentine, n.d.).
San Joaquin Valley which is the most agriculturally productive region in the world, is also a region of deep and concentrated poverty and food insecurity. This valley is known to be the most polluted air basin for fine particles which on inhalation causes severe respiratory diseases, including early death. It also accounts for the second worst air quality region in the United States.
Some of the main causes of air pollution are:
- Oil drilling operations
- Large industries
- Heavy traffic along Interstate 5, and Highway 99 (Where Bad Air Carries Peril and Promise, 2022)
The communities most affected by adverse health effects from environmental pollution are primarily Black and Latino. This is mainly because these neighborhoods are home to distribution warehouses with idling diesel trucks that add more particulate matter to the thick smoggy haze from nearby highways (Center for Health Journalism, 2022). The car and truck emissions in the San Joaquin valley constitute about half of the measured airborne PM2.5 and the other half is made up of local sources such as wood, smoke and dust.
A number of studies have linked airborne PM2.5 exposure to increased severity of asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis and decreased respiratory function among children. Airborne PM2.5 is also linked to increase in respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations and premature death among people with preexisting heart and/or lung disease. About 1,200 cases of premature death have been reported in the valley each year from PM2.5 exposure. It has been reported that PM2.5 emissions are expected to rise as the population grows.
Though there have been some efforts made in improving the air quality for the valley, climate change is complicating these efforts by aggravating many drivers of pollution. These pollutants along with climate change continue to worsen the Central Valley’s already poor air quality (Phillips et al., 2022b). Staggering inequities affect the valley and its communities as it is primarily comprised of Black and Latinos. Various studies have depicted that people of color are disproportionately exposed to air pollution that takes a significant toll on their health.
About one in six children in the San Joaquin Valley have asthma (the highest recorded in the state) and the asthma prevalence across the Valley has reached as high as twenty percent in school age children. In fact, between 2008 and 2016, Stanislaus County had the higher rate of emergency department visits for asthma (between 43.7 and 50.4 per 100,000) compared to the whole of California (Video: Harder Pushes Experts on Childhood Asthma Epidemic in Central Valley, 2021).
San Joaquin Valley’s poor air quality is linked to serious respiratory diseases. In addition to the respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, the polluted valley air is known to cause Valley Fever also known as coccidioidomycosis (a fungal infection), which the Center for Disease Control (CDC) claims is endemic in the Valley. This fever is caused by breathing in the microscopic fungal spores from the polluted air which can lead to pneumonia and other long-term respiratory problems in the older residents. The CDC estimates 200 or fewer deaths occur per year in the U.S. due to Valley Fever (Reyes & Reyes, n.d.-b).
Apart from asthma and valley fever, the poor air quality can also lead to other illnesses such as:
- Lung cancer
- Heart attack
- Reduced ventilatory capacity
The San Joaquin valley air quality along with the novel COVID-19 virus, have depicted to us the desperate need for “clean air” particularly for the more than 92% of the world’s population who live in areas with unhealthy air. The vulnerable population of the San Joaquin valley deserve environmental justice and the right to clean air.
Below are some remedies to solve the environmental injustice and to provide a better standard of living for the people of San Joaquin valley. The National and City governments could consider the following actions while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to regulate and monitor the air quality:
- Fast adoption of policies supporting clean modes of transport. This can be achieved by modifying the older truck engines to newer ones in order to reduce pollution.
- Implement incentive programs to help small business truckers modify their existing vehicles to move to Electric Vehicles in order to reduce pollution
- Work with City Planning and Traffic Management to identify train times, points of crossing, and areas where trucks have to idle for train crossing stations. Identify potential solutions including fly over bridges, modifying train schedules to not interfere with common truck time routes, etc.
- Help create a public health support group to provide enhanced asthma care to families through home visiting services by means of individualized asthma education, care coordination, and connection to primary care, asthma specialists, and community resources
- Help create Asthma coalition groups to organize school based asthma programs for children. This program aims to educate the patients on self-management by providing the asthmatic children with an Asthma Action Plan to guide their self management efforts. The overall goal of the program is to improve medication adherence among children with asthma, reduce asthma-related emergency department (ED) visits and hospitalizations, decrease missed school days because of asthma, reduce healthcare costs and improve the quality of life for asthmatic patients.
Safety measures for the San Joaquin Valley community members:
People living in the area with poor air quality could follow these simple tips to protect themselves from inhaling polluted air:
- Track the quality of air at AirNow.gov to find information on the quality of air for a particular day. Based on the predictions, it is better to stay indoors on bad air quality days
- Use a N95 respirator that can help achieve a very close facial fit. These masks are specifically designed to help filtrate airborne particles efficiently and can be helpful for asthmatic patients.
- It is better to avoid roads with heavy traffic on hot days. These areas have the worst air quality as a result of long idling time for large trucks and cars.
- If you develop symptoms such as consistent cough, irritated eyes, shortness of breath, itchy throat, headaches or frequent sinus infections, visit your doctor.
- Turrentine, J. M. J. (n.d.). Air Pollution: Everything You Need to Know. NRDC. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/air-pollution-everything-you-need-know (Turrentine, n.d.)
- WHERE BAD AIR CARRIES PERIL AND PROMISE. (2022, July 25). www.zocalopublicsquare.org. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2022/07/25/san-joaquin-valley-pollution/ideas/essay/ (WHERE BAD AIR CARRIES PERIL AND PROMISE, 2022)
- Center for Health Journalism. (2022, February 27). Truck emissions are hurting South Fresno. What’s the remedy? Retrieved October 14, 2022, from https://centerforhealthjournalism.org/2022/02/27/truck-emissions-are-hurting-south-fresno-what-s-remedy (Center for Health Journalism, 2022)
- Reyes, C. B., & Reyes, C. B. (n.d.). Air quality in the San Joaquin Valley | firsttuesday Journal. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from https://journal.firsttuesday.us/air-quality-in-the-san-joaquin-valley/52798/ (Reyes & Reyes, n.d.-b)
- Clean-air plan for San Joaquin Valley first to meet all federal standards for fine particle pollution | California Air Resources Board. (2019, January 24). Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/news/clean-air-plan-san-joaquin-valley-first-meet-all-federal-standards-fine-particle-pollution (Clean-air Plan for San Joaquin Valley First to Meet All Federal Standards for Fine Particle Pollution | California Air Resources Board, 2019)
- Video: Harder Pushes Experts on Childhood Asthma Epidemic in Central Valley. (2021, May 26). Representative Josh Harder. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://harder.house.gov/media/press-releases/video-harder-pushes-experts-childhood-asthma-epidemic-central-valley (Video: Harder Pushes Experts on Childhood Asthma Epidemic in Central Valley, 2021)
- Climate change threatens already poor air quality in California’s Central Valley
Phillips, C., Mulvey, K., Negin, E., & Dahl, K. (2022, July 28). Climate Change Threatens Already Poor Air Quality in California’s Central Valley. The Equation. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://blog.ucsusa.org/carly-phillips/climate-change-threatens-already-poor-air-quality-in-californias-central-valley/ (Phillips et al., 2022)
Contributor: Tejaswini Jagadeesh MPH Candidate, UC Berkeley School of Public Health Intern at Catholic Charities Diocese of Stockton
Guided by: Martha Armas Kelly (Stanislaus Program Coordinator) Catholic Charities Diocese of Stockton