Merced’s air pollution in a tie for worst in U.S., Time magazine says

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comNovember 13, 2013 

— A recently published report by Time magazine ranks Merced’s air pollution as the worst in the country, but local air pollution control officials say the report is flawed and based on incomplete data, and that the situation is not as bad as it seems.

On its Science and Space website, Time cites an American Lung Association report that has Merced and Bakersfield tied for tops in most persistent air pollution in the nation. That is disputed by Seyed Sadredin, air pollution control officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, and by Merced County Supervisor Hub Walsh.

Merced is faulted for having consistently high year-round levels of particulates or airborne solids that are unhealthy, but Walsh said data in the Lung Association’s April report is incomplete and misleading.

Merced County is one of the cleanest counties in the San Joaquin Valley, Walsh said, and is making progress on addressing pollution issues. Walsh is on the board of the eight-county air pollution district that stretches from San Joaquin to Kern counties.

“It’s too bad the report hasn’t been updated,” Walsh said. “There has been a lot of effort in trying to clean up the air. We are making progress.”

William Barrett of Sacramento, policy manager for the American Lung Association, said particulate pollution is more difficult to clean up. The number of unhealthy days from ozone pollution is the lowest it has been, but the ALA still ranks Merced County as the 11th most ozone-polluted area in the United States.

Sadredin said the bottom line is that the Time magazine report is totally misleading and based on only two to three months of winter data. He said that among the eight San Joaquin Valley counties, Merced is one of the cleanest.

Measurements that prompted the worst-of-all ranking were taken only in the winter months when particulate levels are the highest and not for the entire year. Springtime and summer level particulate readings are much better, and Merced is nowhere near the pollution levels registered in Bakersfield, Sadredin said.

In the Time report, other areas named in the top ten for pollution were Fresno-Madera; Hanford-Corcoran; Los Angeles-Long Beach; Modesto; Visalia-Porterville; Pittsburgh and New Castle, Pa.; El Centro; and the Cincinnati metropolitan area.

Barrett said there are planning programs underway in the San Joaquin Valley to design healthier transportation options, such as communities where people walk to work, which will result in less pollution.

The Valley’s geography and weather patterns, along with agricultural burning, diesel equipment and wood smoke, lead to high particulate pollution levels, Barrett said.

Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said he has heard over the years that 25 percent of Merced’s ozone pollution comes from the Bay Area and 50 percent is related to agricultural activities.

Thurston said all cities in the San Joaquin Valley are in a bowl. An inversion layer in the summertime traps contaminated air. Ongoing efforts to reduce pollution include the use of bicycles, hybrid vehicles, reduced vehicle use and carpooling.

“I’m not sure if we parked every car in the city that it would do much for air quality,” Thurston said. “We won’t give up and will keep trying to reduce pollution.”

A $650,000 project to synchronize the traffic signals at G and 16th streets in Merced could have an impact on reducing pollution, the mayor said.

Kathleen Grassi, Merced County public health director, said her department doesn’t regulate air pollution, but rather to inform and educate the population on how to avoid respiratory-lung problems or asthmatic conditions.

Grassi said the San Joaquin Valley in general has air-quality challenges. The Health Department’s focus is making recommendations to help people stay healthy. She urged people who experience coughing and shortness of breath to seek attention for underlying medical conditions.

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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