Environment

SLO County received an ‘F’ ozone rating, but that may be misleading

Stanley Fisher lived near the Oceano Dunes — while battling a terminal lung disease

Living within sight of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area, California, Stanley Fisher battled a terminal lung disease until his death in 2019. He and his wife monitored the air on a constant basis in San Luis Obispo County.
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Living within sight of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area, California, Stanley Fisher battled a terminal lung disease until his death in 2019. He and his wife monitored the air on a constant basis in San Luis Obispo County.

San Luis Obispo County has some of the cleanest air in California, according to the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District. Yet, the American Lung Association gave San Luis Obispo an “F” in terms of ozone pollution and “B” in terms of particulate pollution.

“It is fair to say San Luis Obispo has clean air quality when compared to other areas in California,” ALA director of clean air advocacy William Barrett said in a phone interview.

However, ALA focuses not on comparative results, but national standards.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standard for ozone is 70 parts per billion over eight hours. The lower the number of parts per billion, the less ozone pollution, the better the air quality.

According to the 2019 ALA State of the Air Report, San Luis Obispo County violated that standard 18 days from 2015 to 2017, resulting in an “F” grade. Seven to nine days in violation was the passing limit and zero days in violation warranted an “A.”

Of the 18 days in violation, 17 days were orange ozone days, meaning it was unhealthy for sensitive populations, including the reported 21,691 San Luis Obispo County residents who have asthma, to be outside or performing strenuous activity. The other day was a red ozone day, meaning it was unhealthy for all in the area.

However, San Luis Obispo Air Pollution Control District Officer Gary Willey said via phone interview the report does not accurately represent the county.

“The rating is misleading for our county in particular, not necessarily for all counties,” Willey said.

Data from 11 monitors throughout San Luis Obispo County were used to compile the report, including a monitor in the eastern mountainous region close to the Kern County line. Willey said very few people live in that area, where the highest readings for ozone pollution were noted.

Ozone pollution, often referred to as smog, is a corrosive gas that burns lung tissue, Barrett wrote in an email to The Tribune.

“Ozone pollution, like a sunburn on the skin, it is kind of like that on lung tissue,” Barrett said via phone interview.

Ozone pollution is typically associated with the summer months and is a result of emissions from tailpipes, gas stations and consumer products mixing with the hot summer air, Barrett said.

Willey said most of the ozone pollution read on the monitors near Kern County are a result of transportation from the Central Valley and does not reach the majority of San Luis Obispo County.

“We put (a monitor) out there to track transport from the San Joaquin Valley,” Willey said, adding, “99 percent of our county, as far as air quality, has good air.”

As for particulate pollution, which is typically associated with wildfire smoke, diesel exhaust and sand, SLO County fairs relatively well. Monitors near the Oceano Dunes raised the average of particulate pollution, Willey said.

Despite the 2019 ALA ratings, both Willey and Barrett said they’ve seen an improvement in the county’s air quality over the years.

In the 20 years that the State of the Air Report has been released, this year’s report had the lowest weighted average of high ozone pollution days recorded, according to their website. However, Barrett said, air quality standards are becoming stricter as more scientific research is conducted on the issue.

Willey said he thinks San Luis Obispo County will recieve an “A” in the near future, but residents should not worry too much for now.

For the most up-to-date information on local air quality, you can sign up for AirAware alerts at www.slocleanair.org/air-quality-alerts.php.

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