Come to California – Surf, Sand and Smog

By Leon Kolankiewicz
April 23, 2017

America’s most populous state, California, has the most polluted air in the country. While probably not surprising to most, for any who still believe the Golden State is indeed that, the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report released this month will dispel that belief – at least looking at one factor: air quality.
California’s status as the state with the nation’s worst air is most evident at the county level. For year-round fine particulate matter pollution, nine of the ten worst U.S. counties are in California. All but two are in the rapidly growing Central Valley, known for its prolific agricultural output, and now also for increased vehicular emissions from population and traffic growth, and “fugitive dust” from extensive farming operations trapped by surrounding mountain ranges.
As well, eight of the ten counties in the country most afflicted with ozone pollution are Californian, taking the No. 1 through No. 8 spots.
Looking on a city basis, the ten most polluted U.S. cities, as measured by short-term (24-hour) fine particulate matter, include six in California – Bakersfield, Visalia, Fresno and Modesto in the Central Valley, and San Francisco and Los Angeles. The latter, the legendary “birthplace of smog,” once again holds the disreputable title, as it has so often before, of having the nation’s worst ozone pollution, harmful to human health, crops and ecosystems.
The American Lung Association report emphasizes that, overall, there has been remarkable progress in cleaning up the nation’s air since 1970, when the Clean Air Act was passed. Indeed, aggregate emissions of six common air pollutants from all sources (vehicles, power plants, factories, etc.) have declined by 71 percent since 1970, despite growth in the economy, population, vehicle miles traveled and energy consumption, all of which would tend to push emissions upward.
Laws and regulation-enforced implementation of “techno-fixes” have driven this reduction. This includes technologies such as catalytic converters, exhaust gas recirculation, electrostatic precipitators, baghouses and so forth, which scrub air pollutants like VOCs, NOx and particulates from waste flow streams before they are released to the air through tailpipes and smokestacks.
Still, air quality problems persist, and many are in California. Our state’s current enormous population of almost 40 million people – expected to add another 6.5 million by 2036 and keep on growing to a state population of an estimated 50 million during 2055 – will not make achieving better air quality any easier.
Population growth overwhelms attempts to control air pollution. If we want a California that’s healthy, offers a good quality of life for all and is environmentally sustainable, we have to look at slowing population growth. Almost of the state’s growth is from immigration, so a good starting point is enforcing existing immigration laws and, as a matter of policy, looking at reducing immigration to more traditional levels.

A Senior Writing Fellow with Californians for Population Stabilization, Leon Kolankiewicz is an environmental scientist and wildlife biologist. Contact him at