The American Lung Association, in their annual State of the Air report, leaves no doubt that Kern County has the worst Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) pollution levels in the United States. Our PM2.5 levels in the most recent 2016 report were 64% higher than the national health standard. Fresno, Kings, Madera, and Tulare counties were the next four on the list. The worst place outside of California was Shoshone County, Idaho at 8% above the health standard.
PM2.5 is a very localized pollution problem. We make it ourselves. Dust from agriculture, smoke from wood burning, diesel soot from trucks, exhaust from boilers, and nitrates from ammonia and vehicles, make up most of the inventory. The most dangerous levels develop when high atmospheric pressure puts a lid over the valley for several days in a row. This is common during our winter months unless we get rain every week. Rule of thumb: If there is a hint of fog in the air, don’t go outside.
In the scientific literature there is a growing body of evidence relating PM2.5 pollution to premature death. The many diseases exacerbated by this type of pollution show why this is true. Kern County is an unfortunate leader in several of these types of diseases.
Kern’s death rate from Coronary Heart Disease is the second worst in the state and 43% above average. In Air particulate matter and cardiovascular disease: the epidemiological, biomedical and clinical evidence, Yixing Du summarized the body of work showing the effects of PM2.5 on cardiovascular health. Numerous studies have shown the direct effects of PM2.5 on the body’s major organs as these particles enter the blood stream.
Also, Kern’s death rate from Respiratory Disease is 60% above the state average. After twenty years of epidemiological studies, scientists have revealed a significant correlation between fine particle pollutants and respiratory disease and death. Great summaries of many of these studies can be found online at the National Center for Biotechnology Information and in publications such as the Journal of Thoracic Disease. A excellent one from 2016 is by Yu-Fei Xing titled The impact of PM2.5 on the human respiratory system.
Death from diabetes also plagues Kern County. In fact, we have the highest death rate in the state from diabetes and are 60% above the state average. Pearson, in a study titled Association Between Fine Particulate Matter and Diabetes Prevalence in the U.S. described how PM2.5 likely makes this disease worse. His findings add to the growing evidence that air pollution is a risk factor for diabetes.
The science of air pollution does not stop with the three big killers mentioned above. Qiao Lee published a study this year on the Effects of Ambient Fine Particles PM2.5 on Human Skin Cells. The study shows how exposure to PM2.5 can lead to worse dermatitis and eczema.
And, have you ever wondered why Kern has an infant mortality rate about 40% above the state average. Woodruff in Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) Air Pollution and Selected Causes of Postneonatal Infant Mortality in California demonstrates how this is partly related to our bad air.
Michelle Wilhelm, in 2010, demonstrated in Traffic-related air toxics and preterm birth: a population-based case-control study in Los Angeles how exposure to ammonium nitrate particles, which are more than half of our PM2.5 on bad days, can lead to preterm birth. Kern is 17% above the state average in that category.
Jung CR revealed recently a probable relation between Alzheimer’s Disease and PM2.5. That study is called Ozone, particulate matter, and newly diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. Not to scare anyone, but Kern is 45% above the state average in Alzheimer rates.
To round things out, Fibrosis of the liver was linked to PM2.5 in 2015 by Zheng X in Exposure to fine airborne particulate matters induces hepatic fibrosis in murine models.
Studies are also coming that demonstrate how ultra-fine particles in our air can invade the body’s cells and cause genetic damage which is then passed on to offspring.
In conclusion, a wealth of scientific evidence over the past twenty years demonstrate the dangers of PM2.5 and its effects on disease and premature death. The health benefits of clearing our air and meeting the national health standards are significant and far exceed the cost of the cleanup.