Investigations

Live on or near the Nipomo Mesa? We’re investigating air quality and need your help

Aerial views of the Nipomo Mesa show a plume of dust that sweeps through the community on windy days.
Aerial views of the Nipomo Mesa show a plume of dust that sweeps through the community on windy days. San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District

Event update: Join us at a free, public event about air quality on the Nipomo Mesa, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 4 at the Mesa Middle School. Click here to learn more.

We are investigating air quality on the Nipomo Mesa to learn about how bad air days affect local families and their health — and we want to hear your story.

Air quality monitors show that the air on the Nipomo Mesa often contains large amounts of particulate matter, or, PM — tiny particles that when inhaled can be dangerous to your health.

We’ve been canvassing the neighborhood and we’re hearing from people who say they have the “Mesa cough,” or their children stay home from school on windy days because of asthma.

We want to hear from more people who live, work, go to school or play in the area, especially people that have allergy-like symptoms, cough a lot, get winded easily, have been diagnosed with asthma or lung disease, or those who are just concerned about the dust on windy days.

Does that sound like you or someone in your family? Click here or fill out the form below to help our reporting by answering a few questions about your health. We will not publish your answers without your permission.

Read on for more information.

What is the health risk on the Mesa?

Monitors on the Nipomo Mesa show the air quality violated state health standards on 97 days in 2017, creating health risks for thousands of people who live, work and go to school in the area. The air quality continues to be bad during wind events, affecting people who live in areas with both Nipomo and Arroyo Grande addresses.

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Brian Aunger, Air Pollution Control District engineer, walks among air sampling monitors in February 2012. The monitors were deployed across the Nipomo Mesa and measure how different locations are affected by particulate air pollution from the Oceano Dunes. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

On days that are really bad, the health risks are similar to those of wildfires and asbestos. There are short-term and long-term health risks, and there can be cumulative effects from exposure over time.

Of course, not everyone who lives in the area will experience health consequences.

Large particles can irritate your eyes, nose and throat, similar to symptoms of allergies. Fine particles that are too small to see are more dangerous because they can get deep into your lungs or your blood. Particulate matter can cause coughing, shortness of breath and more serious problems, such as slowed lung function growth in children and teenagers, development of asthma, lung disease and heart attacks.

“Most of the times when our air quality readings are above the state standard, that typically means the conditions are potentially hazardous to young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with underlying conditions,” San Luis Obispo County public health officer Penny Borenstein said. “We have had moments where (the air) can be harmful for all individuals.”

Click here to participate in the investigation.

What is the cause of air pollution on the Mesa?

This kind of unhealthy air pollution (dust, dirt, soot or smoke) can come from dirt roads, diesel trucks, wood stoves, construction sites, refineries and fields — and all of those things might contribute to the local problem. It can also come from the beach as dust particles that get swept up in the wind.

Air quality experts say that a plume of dust wafts across South County downwind from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. You may have seen it as a haze that blankets the area on windy days.

A 2013 study contracted by the state Department of Parks and Recreation found that during wind events, dust emissions from the areas of the Oceano Dunes where vehicles are allowed could be two to five times higher than those from areas where vehicles aren’t allowed.

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This map by the Air Pollution Control District shows areas where the dust plume from the Oceano Dunes tends to blow over south San Luis Obispo County. The darker areas are impacted the most. San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District

Last year, the American Lung Association sent a strongly worded letter to San Luis Obispo County leaders, urging them to enforce solutions to reduce harmful particle pollution “as quickly as possible to protect public health.”

California State Parks last year negotiated a settlement order with the county Air Pollution Control District to reduce nuisance dust emissions by 50 percent over five years. They plan to reduce dust blowing downwind by installing fencing and planting new vegetation.

Some of it is natural: The Air Pollution Control District says dust would still blow across the Mesa from the beach if there were no vehicles.



We want to hear from you. Will you answer a few questions?

We’ve heard from parents in the area whose children frequently suffer from asthma or allergy-like symptoms, especially on windy days. We’ve heard from seniors who have lost their spouses to lung disease.

We know that it’s impossible to attribute health outcomes to a specific cause. We also know that these health issues are real and that for some people, their symptoms correlate to bad air days.

Now we want to learn your story and find answers to your questions. Please take a few minutes to fill out a questionnaire about your health experience living on the Mesa. No identifying information you provide will be published in any future stories without your permission.

Fill out the form below to share your story.

For more information about this project, please email NipomoMesaAir@gmail.com or call/text 805-619-0675.

Feel free to share this story and survey with your friends and neighbors.

This reporting project is produced by The McClatchy Company with support from the USC Center for Health Journalism.

Update July 2: This story was updated for accuracy to reflect the findings of the 2013 Pi-Swirl study.

Update August 5: This story was updated to clarify what kind of particle is carried by wind from the beach across the Mesa.

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com
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