California cemented its notoriety as the smoggiest state by having six metropolitan areas listed among the 10 most-polluted areas of the nation, according to American Lung Association rankings released Thursday.
THE FOUR smoggiest urban areas were all in California: Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County; Fresno; Bakersfield and Visalia-Tulare-Porterville, in the central part of the state.
With its sunny skies, warm temperatures and reliance on the automobile, the Golden State has historically been the smoggiest place in America. While the air has gotten significantly cleaner - even as the population has swelled - haze continues to blanket large areas of the state in concentrations that violate federal standards.
“Even in the last few years, where they’ve made some large strides perhaps, it’s just that again they have such a large hill to climb that it’s hard for that to show up at this point,” said Janice Nolen, director of national policy for the lung association.
The ALA’s findings were based on the most recent Environmental Protection Agency data used to track ozone, or smog, which is formed when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons from vehicles mix with sunlight.
Among the other report findings:
While 93 counties nationwide improved their marks from last year, 26 counties received lower grades this year. Improvements, mostly in the Southeast, were attributed to weather patterns that brought cooler temperatures or winds that diverted pollution elsewhere.
Nearly half of Americans are living in counties with unhealthy smog levels.
55 percent of all monitored counties received an F rating.
In California, 28 of the state’s 58 counties got failing marks for air quality.
Although nine California counties improved their grades, the ALA said 33 million of the state’s 35 million people are breathing dirty air. That number is up by nearly 4 million people from last year’s report.
Some experts, however, cautioned that the report is based on deceptive methodology that can give failing grades for entire regions based on a few air monitoring stations that register violations, while others in the area record safe smog levels.
“It’s incredibly misleading to tell people breathing clean air that they’re in danger,” said Joel Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Reason Public Policy Institute, which promotes a libertarian view on public policy. “The report’s been the same every year. It exaggerates air pollution levels and exaggerates risks each year.”
The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, agreed. “Current air pollution levels are about 75 percent below levels measured during the 1960s, with even greater improvements in the areas that had the worst pollution, e.g., Southern California,” Steven Hayward wrote in a rebuttal to the ALA report co-authored with Schwartz.
The ALA assigns an “F” “if only a single air quality monitor within an airshed exceeds the EPA’s strict new 8-hour ozone standard,” they noted. “But in most metro areas only a few monitors register” an excess. “In some metro areas, only a tiny percentage of the population lives in proximity to air quality monitors that exceed the EPA standard.”
BUSH PROPOSALS CRITICIZED
The ALA defended its methodology and while recognizing past clean air gains claimed that Bush administration proposals threatened to undermine them.
Of particular concern is what’s called the “new source review” — a Clean Air Act requirement for older power plants to install new pollution controls if they increase production. The Bush administration has proposed giving these older power plants more flexibility in meeting that requirement, saying that would still achieve cleaner air.
But the ALA believes it would “drastically weaken new source review” and its president, John Kirkwood, called it “the tip of the iceberg of policy changes that would weaken the core of the Clean Air Act.”
The ALA also noted that its findings do not take into account a pollutant that’s considered more dangerous than smog - tiny particles of soot that can lodge deep in the lungs and cause heart problems and even death.
Also known as particulate matter, a major source is from diesel exhaust. The ALA said new soot monitoring data will be incorporated in its 2004 report.
Region by region data is online at .
The ALA Web site also allows users to type in a zip code to find county data.
and The Associated Press contributed to this report.