Bay Area Air Quality Takes a Hit in Latest Report

Smoke from the Carr Fire obscures the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, November, 2018.  (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)

Hotter temperatures, devastating wildfires and more traffic were some of the factors that worsened Bay Area air quality from 2015 to 2017, according to the American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report.

For the first time in the report's 20-year history, no Bay Area counties received an "A" grade for daily particle pollution, a measure of how much harmful exhaust, dust and ash are in the air. The Bay Area as a whole, in fact, was ranked in the 10 worst U.S. metropolitan areas for ozone, short-term particle and annual particle pollution.

Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa and Santa Clara counties all earned Fs in the day-to-day particulate pollution category. Over the three-year period, those counties each experienced more than nine unhealthy air days. San Francisco and San Mateo counties weren't far off, earning a D, defined as one week or more of unhealthy air conditions.

Sonoma County, frequently a straight-A area, fell to a C for particle pollution in the current report. Increasingly destructive wildfires such as the  Tubbs, Valley and Nuns fires had a major impact on the county's air quality, as well as on the air all over the Bay Area, the ALA said.

Experts who weighed in on the report suspect another reason for the worsening air might be more "super-commuters" -- drivers with long commutes, who spend more time on the road to get to and from work.

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"Part of the problem in the Bay Area is affordable housing," said Dr. John Balmes, a professor of environmental medicine at UCSF. "The people who have to drive the furthest and therefore create the most transportation-related pollution are the workers who can't afford to live in San Francisco and, increasingly, Oakland."

The good news is that over the last two decades, pollution, especially ozone, has decreased considerably. Ozone is the main component in "smog."

But as the climate changes, Bay Area residents can probably expect the grade deflation on these annual report cards to continue. Next year, for instance, the assessment will take into account the pollution generated by the Carr Fire, which had a disastrous effect on Bay Area air quality.

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Jon Brooks contributed to this report.

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