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The Hidden Threat of Northern California Air Pollution

By January 29, 2018 May 4th, 2020 No Comments
10 minutes to read

The most people may not think it, Northern California has an air pollution problem. Air pollution in San Jose, part of Northern California’s Bay Area, was actually worse than air pollution in Shanghai for at least 32 days out of June and July of last year. What causes Northern California air pollution? What can be done to reduce this pollution and protect the health of the people who live in the Bay Area and beyond?

Northern California’s Air Pollution Problem

The Bay Area and other places in Northern California, like Sacramento, have struggled with air pollution over the past couple years. Northern California’s air pollution problem is actually so severe that on certain days the air quality in the Bay Area was actually worse than the air quality in the notoriously polluted Shanghai.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District monitors the air for the entire Bay Area and makes use of 35 different air quality monitoring stations. The air quality monitoring stations track levels of six pollutants that the EPA has defined as criteria pollutants: carbon monoxide, ozone, particulate matter, lead, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

“The Air Quality Index tracks the severity of air pollution in different areas around the world,” explains Kevin Wood, Camfil USA Vice President Sales & Marketing. “Measurements of PM2.5 (particles of soot and dust smaller than 2.5 µm in width) in San Jose were found to be either higher, or almost the same, as measurements made at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai for 32 out of 61 days in June and July of last year.” (1)

Sources of Air Pollution in Northern California

North California is not usually thought of as a center of air pollution, especially when compared to other heavily polluted places in California like the Los Angeles basin. However, a combination of weather, geography, and emissions have colluded in recent years to hit Northern California hard with air pollution. Sources of air pollution in Northern California include increasing amounts of traffic, emissions from industry in areas like the Port of Oakland, and smoke from both domestic and wildfires.

The Pacific High-Pressure System sits over the Bay Area which traps air in the region and prevents it from moving up and over the mountains. California has also recently been impacted by a severe drought, which further exacerbates the air pollution problem.

“One of the main ways that particulate matter is removed from the atmosphere is rain, so if there’s less rain it means particulate pollution builds up more. The drought in the region also contributes to the probability and severity of forest fires which are themselves massive contributors to pollution,” says Wood. (2)

California experienced at least 22 massive wildfires during the fall of 2017, which emitted large amounts of particulate matter. The fires have created some of the highest pollution levels the Bay Area has ever seen, around 500 on the Air Quality Index, indicating “hazardous” air quality that is likely to affect the entire population.

Effects of Northern California Air Pollution

The effects of Northern California air pollution vary widely depending on the severity of the pollution and what pollutants people are exposed to. Ozone pollution comes from a chemical reaction between sunlight, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds. Breathing in high levels of ozone can cause difficulty breathing, throat irritation, and the worsening of conditions like asthma.

Exposure to both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide can cause damage to people’s respiratory systems, aggravating conditions like asthma. Particulate matter pollution is perhaps the most persistent danger in terms of the air pollution affecting Northern California.

Particulate matter is small enough to enter the lungs and even the bloodstream, and it can increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, respiratory illnesses, and cancer. Particulate matter is thought to cause almost 7000 premature deaths a year in the state of California alone, and millions worldwide.

Cleaning Up The Air In Northern California

Cleaning up the air in Northern California will require a combination of regulations and technology. Regulations have been extremely effective thus far in reducing aggregate air pollution across the nation. Throughout the United States, average air pollution emissions have dropped by 69%, while economic output has tripled, thanks to regulations like the Clean Air Act. However, more work still needs to be done creating standards that will facilitate lower emission levels.

“Technological solutions to Northern California’s air pollution problem also have their own role to play. Vehicles have gotten much cleaner since the 1970’s and 80’s, and a switch to electric or zero-emission vehicles is possible in the near future. Cleaner vehicles are a major contributor to cleaner air in Northern California, and continuing to invest in them is one of the best ways of reducing air pollution.” (3)

Protecting Yourself From Northern California Air Pollution

Protecting yourself from Northern California air pollution is incredibly important for your health and safety. Being exposed to particulate matter can harm your lungs and even increase your risk for cancer.

“The Bay Area Air Quality Management District recommends that you keep an eye on local air quality reports. If air quality is poor (over 100 on the Air Quality Index), limit your time spent outside,” says Wood. “If you must go outside when air quality is poor, do so at night or early morning when emissions are at their lowest concentrations. It is recommended that you employ industry-grade N95 respirator masks to avoid breathing in particulate matter.” (4)

It is also very important to protect yourself while you are inside your house. Make sure that your house is as airtight as it can be, and use the right air filters for your HVAC system.

Reach out to Camfil as soon as possible if you are affected by Northern California air pollution or are in any other area that may have high-level air quality concerns. Camfil will help you ensure that your HVAC system is equipped with the right filters, so it can protect your health and the health of your family.