Polluted Valley

Craig Kohlruss / The Associated Press

Many people complain about the air quality in the Valley, but according to a recent study, very few know what to do about it.

A report released in December 2007 by the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State addressed the issue and offered some strategies that the average person can use to deal with the problem, including appealing to their local legislators.

The report, titled “The Long Road to Clean Air in the San Joaquin Valley: Facing the Challenge of Public Engagement” was compiled by David Lighthall, Ph.D. and John Capitman, Ph.D.

Four main issues were identified within the report: the social and economic factors driving air pollution, the constraints on public involvement, barriers in policy making and strategies that can be used to make conditions better. A focus group was also used in the study to determine the public’s understanding and willingness to engage in the topic of air quality.

According to Lighthall, the San Joaquin Valley has ideal conditions for air pollution.

“We have a geophysical environment that tends to concentrate pollutants both in the summer time and in the winter time,” said Lighthall, adding that low wind movement prevents pollutants from dissipating. He also mentioned that pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) often react with sunlight and heat to form dangerous compounds.

Although VOCs from combustion represent the largest percentage of pollutants, Lighthall indicated that particulate matter also poses a significant threat, as does ammonium nitrate, which is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.) The population increase within the Valley has increased the levels of these contaminants in recent years.

The report stated that the key reason why people do not engage in the issue of air pollution is because the science of it is so complex. In addition, the authorities and public officials whose job it is to deal with the problem are not appointed by means of a public vote.

“A lot of people learn about issues through voting,” Lighthall said.

Lighthall also discussed the tension that exists between public health, business and lifestyle preferences. The combination of these things, Lighthall said, “inevitably creates a fertile environment for scientific disagreement.”

Nevertheless, Lighthall discovered from a study of six focus groups that people generally tend to view themselves as part of the problem, whether it’s by burning wood in the fireplace or driving their cars. He also discovered that people are willing to consent to special service fees to directly benefit the environment as opposed to broad taxes.

“The public needs to be willing to pay these fees,” Lighthall said. “They need to support officials that promote bills that help to clean the air.”

In recent years, several policies have been implemented that keep this focus in the forefront. Dairy farms are now required to carry off animal waste and boilers in food processing plants are being inspected for regular cleaning.

“It’s a collective problem and it requires a collective solution,” said Lighthall.

Lighthall said that trends could change fairly rapidly. Even the outlook for this summer is unclear.

“We can’t say for sure what conditions are gonna be,” Lighthall said.

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