Unusually dry weather across California and the Southwest is being blamed for the sooty haze that has worsened the existing air pollution in the region. Weather forecasters state that the high pressure is keeping away rain, causing particulate matter to stay close to the ground, thereby resulting in the unpleasant haze that greets people each time they step outdoors.
Air quality officials in California have issued advisories banning wood fires in homes, as they increase the levels of particulate matter in the atmosphere, posing a serious risk to people’s health. Many hospitals and clinics have reported an increased number of patients complaining of itchy eyes, breathing difficulties, tightness in the chest and runny noses.
Dr. Sunil Saini, an allergies specialist based in Upland California said, “It’s not just an inconvenience, it’s a significant health issue.” He also stated that the number of patients with respiratory disorders used to taper off at the beginning of December, but this year it has not been the case.
The Southwestern region and California are known to be among the most polluted basins in the nation, but a few winter storms usually wash away a lot of the air pollution in this region. Air quality officials have reported that the Santa Ana winds have been circulating in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, but that this circulation has been insufficient to improve air quality. Since December 2013, the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California have been subjected to high air pollution levels and there are no signs of the levels abating for days or even weeks to come.
The dry weather in California and the Southwest is expected to make air pollution levels far worse than usual, as so far in January, there is no indication of any rain. If current weather forecasts are accurate, January will be the driest month ever recorded in California. Last year had the dubious distinction of being California’s driest year in the past 119 years. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency in the State.
San Joaquin Valley is the worst affected in terms of the air pollution. In Bakersfield and Hanford, the aggregation of fine particulate matter in the air is three times the federal standard, which is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. These communities have been subjected to Level 5 health advisories, which is the highest level. People are being advised to stay indoors to avoid the ill-effects of extremely polluted air.
Dr. Alexander Sherriffs, a family physician based in Fowler and a member of the local air quality board, summed up the situation in a single statement.
“We’re sitting in the soup,” he said, “and it’s not a healthy soup.”
While vehicles, like diesel trucks, cars and trains, do emit fine particles into the atmosphere throughout the year, the amount of particulate matter that people breathe in is controlled largely by prevailing weather conditions, according to Barbara Finlayson-Pitts, an atmospheric chemist.
Fine particles, that are even smaller than the width of a human hair, are the most problematic. These particles get lodged inside the lungs and can exacerbate respiratory problems. When long-term exposure occurs, people risk developing serious illnesses, such as asthma and even heart disease.With no end in sight, the dry weather conditions in California and parts of the Southwest have given rise to a host of difficulties for the local population, including the worsening levels of air pollution in the region.
By Grace Stephen