SLO County gets failing grades for air quality, but officials say ratings are wrong

Beachgoers at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area in 2016.
Beachgoers at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area in 2016. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Air pollution in the Nipomo Mesa caused by dust blowing from dunes contributed to San Luis Obispo County receiving a failing grade for air quality from the American Lung Association, county air pollution control officials said.

The county again received an F for ozone pollution and failed for the first time with a D for particle pollution in the association’s annual State of the Air report, which looked at air quality statewide for 2013-15.

But county air pollution control officials said the ratings are “not accurate” because the way the association compiles statistics paints a confusing picture. The increase in particle pollution during the years measured was small, and is not countywide.

“Ninety percent of our county experiences very good air quality,” said Larry Allen, executive director of the county Air Pollution Control District.

The American Lung Association said particle pollution — microscopic bits of material that can damage the lungs — spiked in the county in the years 2013 to 2015 to the highest levels ever measured in the 18 years the annual report has been issued. Analysts attributed the increase to the prolonged drought.

“We have seen higher particle pollution because of the drought, but they have not been exceeding state or federal levels except in the Nipomo Mesa area, downwind from where the problem is due to off-road vehicle activity on the Oceano Dunes,” Allen said.

At times, pockets of the county — both in the Nipomo Mesa and an unpopulated area near the eastern border — suffer from poor air quality caused by ozone pollution generated in the Central Valley that wafts into San Luis Obispo County.

Ozone pollution typically is caused by vehicle emissions.

Air pollution can cause inflammation and asthma attacks, lung cancer and premature death. When particles get into the bloodstream, they can cause stroke or heart attack. Thousands of Californians die every year from polluted air, said William Barrett, a senior policy analyst with American Lung Association in California.

Those concerned with their health should consult with the local Air Pollution Control District. On bad air days, people should avoid being outside or exercising, and should prevent children from playing outside, as their developing lungs are more sensitive, Barrett said.

Air quality officials are working closely with the State Parks Department to develop a plan to decrease air pollution from off-road vehicles in the dunes. The plan includes increased vegetation and diverting off-road vehicles to areas that have a smaller impact on air quality for nearby communities.

The beginning stages of the plan should be put into action by the end of this year.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan