How often do you think about the air you’re breathing? Probably not too often, since our air is pretty clean. But there is still work to do. Chronic or acute respiratory conditions affect a wide range of people, from asthma sufferers to the young and old. Lung cancer deaths exceed all other forms of cancer combined. Lung-related hospitalizations quietly but seriously impact the local economy and family finances every day. So what are we doing about air quality?
While San Diego has steadily added population – and polluting vehicles – over the decades, air quality has improved dramatically. How can this be? Regulations have required continuous innovation and investment in air pollution controls on both stationary sources like power plants, factories, and gas stations, and on mobile sources, including personal vehicles, locomotives, and construction equipment. In fact, clean air laws represent one of the most successful environmental interventions in history, saving billions of dollars in health care expenditures, missed work days, and crop losses.
The County of San Diego agency responsible for air, the Air Pollution Control District (APCD), has been monitoring pollutant concentrations since the 1950’s. Our pollution levels peaked in 1981, a time when the San Diego population was booming and pollution controls for cars, power plants, and other sources were in their infancy. That year, measurements of ozone, our most pervasive pollutant, exceeded the current federal standard on 179 days. These days, APCD records 10 or fewer ozone exceedances each year. We enjoy some of the best air quality in the state, especially compared to our neighbors to the north: Los Angeles and the Central Valley. Every way you look at it, this is a proud public health achievement.
But the job is not finished.
Every five years, the Federal Clean Air Act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review air pollution standards and make adjustments based on the latest health findings. The EPA is currently proposing tightening the ozone standard from the current value of 75 parts per billion (ppb) to between 65 and 70 ppb. This seemingly small change, if approved, could have real consequences for our local businesses that emit air pollutants, perhaps requiring additional control equipment, different raw materials or new work practices. And further cleaning up motor vehicles and other mobile sources will be key since collectively they make up our largest source of air pollution. The public also plays a vital role and can help by buying products with reduced environmental impacts, linking trips, and increasing use of transit, walking, and bicycling. As history has shown, the benefits of these measures are likely to far exceed the costs.
Then there is the newest concern: greenhouse gases (GHG). In the long run, climate scientists warn that GHGs could threaten our very way of life, but short-term public health impacts are also a possibility. These include additional high-heat days, new disease vectors such as mosquitos and more intense wildfires. The APCD has only a small role in reducing GHGs, as most of the regulatory authority remains at the state and federal levels. However, that could change since air districts have tremendous expertise and local experience.
It is APCD’s goal that you never have to think about the air you breathe. So far, we’re succeeding, but the challenges keep coming.
Article written by Andy Hamilton, Planning and Mobile Source Incentives Section Supervisor at APCD. Hamilton has been with the County for 21 years.