Public Health


New Soot Limits Will Challenge Some SoCal Counties

The EPA’s new air quality standards reduce the amount of soot allowed in the air

Soot comes from diesel trucks, industrial emissions and fires.

Two California counties are already behind the eight-ball with the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed new limits on soot. San Bernardino and Riverside are the only counties in the country that the EPA projects will not be able to adhere to the upper limits of its new range.

Soot has been linked to asthma, heart attacks and strokes and it’s also a culprit in climate change. The nasty stuff, also known as black carbon, comes from smoke from fires, diesel tailpipes and industrial emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing an update to its national air quality standards, which seeks to lower the amount of soot in the atmosphere. The new rule would limit the annual exposure to fine particle pollution to between 12-and-13 micrograms per cubic meter. The current standard is 15 micrograms per cubic meter.

The New York Times’ Green blog writes that the EPA had delayed issuing the politically volatile proposal until it was ordered to by a federal court judge. California was one of the states that challenged the delay: Continue reading

The Sorry State of the Salton Sea

As more water flows to the coast, California’s largest inland water body teeters on the brink

By Sam Harnett

The Salton Sea, northeast of San Diego, is an important stop on the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. Millions of birds stop there every year.

Last month the California Supreme Court upheld a water transfer deal that sends billions of gallons of water a year from Imperial County farms to cities in San Diego County. The 2003 deal is the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer in the history of the United States, and it will have major environmental and economic impacts on the region. One of the areas most dramatically affected will be California’s largest — and in many ways its most notorious — inland body of water: the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea has a fraught history. It used to be part of the Colorado River Delta, but with the diversion of water the area has become desert. In 1905, a massive flood caused the formation of the current Sea, and during the following decades it became an iconic resort location, drawing fishermen and pleasure seekers from across the country. In the 1970s, the Sea fell from favor. Rising salinity killed all the sport fish, celebrities stopped coming, and the resort developments were abandoned. Today, the only water the Sea receives is agricultural run-off from nearby farms, and without that water, the Sea will disappear in a matter of years. Continue reading

Doctors Expect Climate Change to Worsen Lung Diseases

In some parts of California air quality is already a big issue

This post originally appeared on KQED’s State of Health blog.

Farming in the Central Valley contributes to the poor air quality there.

As if there wasn’t already enough to worry about, now doctors are predicting that climate change will harm people’s respiratory health. The American Thoracic Society is so concerned it filed a report with two goals. The Society not only wants to raise awareness with doctors so they can take preventive measures with their patients but also is enticing researchers to take on the question for further study. They found that climate change has a direct impact on air quality. A hotter climate, wildfires, more pollen in the air and rates of airborne diseases are worsening respiratory health worldwide.

Climate change will likely affect different places in different ways, but in California it could mean hotter summers and more wildfires. The itchy eyes and sneeze-inducing allergies that plague many people during pollen season could also hang around longer if weather patterns continue to change. All of that is bad for asthmatics, children and the elderly, but also for poor people – as it turns out.

“It was really an eye opener for us,” said Kent Pinkerton, a professor of pediatrics at UC Davis and the lead author on the report. “We were really not aware of the implications of change in temperature on respiratory health. But it really is a global issue. It’s not just a concern for here in our country,” he added. In some parts of Africa and Turkey desertification and increased particulates in the air have already forced people to relocate, often into cramped conditions, which further heightens their risk for respiratory diseases.

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The Unequal Effects of Climate Change

Low-income communities in CA are more vulnerable to climate change-related health risks

The most at-risk families are lower-income and live in more urban areas than the less vulnerable familes.

A study by the California Department of Public Health finds that people in poorer areas of Los Angeles and Fresno Counties are more at risk of ill health effects from climate change than those in wealthier neighborhoods. The report found that in LA, neighborhoods on the coast were the most vulnerable, mostly because of sea-level rise, though it also blamed “poor public transit, wildfire risk, and a large proportion of elderly living alone.” In Fresno, there were similar issues (aside from the obvious fact that sea-level rise won’t directly affect the landlocked county).

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Clearing the Air on Climate and Smog

By Lisa Aliferis

Why climate change and public health policy make good chemistry

A major study released today in Fresno details the direct link between higher levels of air pollution and asthma-related ER and hospital admissions. So, what’s that got to do with climate change? Plenty.

Tourists snap photos of a murky sunset in San Diego

“There’s a division in the public’s mind between global warming and health effects of pollution,” says Dimitri Stanich of the California Air Resources Board.

In reality, there’s significant overlap. Some components of air pollution shown to have harmful warming effects on the planet are also harming people, especially children, right now.

Let’s start with ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone is different from the ozone layer, which lies about 15 miles above the earth (not exactly ground level). The ozone layer shields us from most of the sun’s harmful rays. Ozone is good in the atmosphere but bad, in many ways, at or near ground level. Continue reading

Where Will Climate Change Affect Health the Most?

A new online tool maps where Americans’ health may be most vulnerable to climate change

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released an interactive tool today that maps climate-related health risks across the country, including extreme heat, poor air quality, drought, flooding, and infectious diseases. The maps present a snapshot of current health vulnerabilities using recent data at the state and county levels.

“If we stay on our present course, we can expect these health vulnerabilities from climate change to accelerate” said NRDC Senior Scientist Kim Knowlton on a conference call with reporters. “We need to prepare for the worst in extreme events and the health vulnerabilities that will result.” Continue reading

Report: Climate Change Hits Home

Flooding along San Francisco's Embarcadero during an extreme high tide in February. (Photo: Heidi Nutters/Flickr)

Even if the world stopped emitting all greenhouse gases today, scientists say, the climate would continue to change, perhaps for centuries, before it stabilized.  Since a zero-emissions world is unlikely, to say the least, and considering that global carbon emissions are continuing on their upward trend, finding ways to adapt to what many see as inevitable is getting more and more attention.

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a local think tank focused on sustainable growth, has just released a 40-page report that outlines the Bay Area’s biggest climate risks and lays out a road map for how communities can start preparing.

The upshot?  We’ve got a lot of work to do.
Continue reading

The Air Quality-Carbon Connection

I-80Here’s a news flash: California has an air pollution problem.  According to the American Lung Association’s 2009 State of the Air Report, 38 of California’s 52 counties get failing grades for either high ozone or particle pollution days.  (You can see your own county’s grades for ozone and air particle pollution at the State of the Air website.)

In fact, last month the federal EPA’s new director for San Francisco-based Region 9 made an astonishing claim on KQED’s Forum program. Jared Blumenfeld said that more Californians die from air pollution than from car wrecks. When a caller asked him to back up the claim, Blumenfeld provided the following statistics:

– Traffic-related fatalities: 3,949 deaths per year from 3,535 fatal collisions (average for 1999-2008)
– Deaths associated with PM2.5 exposure above 5 ug/m3 in California : 18,000 deaths per year

Cars are doing double duty in these statistics, since passenger vehicles are a large source of air pollution. Over the decades the state has addressed this fact with landmark efforts to regulate vehicle emissions, in efforts initially to improve local air quality and more recently, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In a new study released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC),  researchers looked at two state priorities: reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and improving air quality to benefit public health, and evaluated the effectiveness of four potential transportation strategies to address both.

What they found is something that policymakers have known all along: there are no easy answers.  And everything involves a trade-off.

PPIC research fellow Louise Bedworth compared the cost, public health benefits, and GHG reduction potential for various alternative-fuel vehicles; battery-electrics, fuel cell, ethanol, and for reducing overall vehicle miles.  What she found is that transforming California’s vehicle fleet to battery-electric vehicles provides the greatest public health benefit, but that high costs and technological uncertainty make this option far from ideal.

On the flip side, said Bedsworth, while we have the technology for vehicles to run on corn-based ethanol, research shows that when indirect land-use costs are considered, corn-based biofuels provide no significant public health or climate change benefit.

But while the PPIC looks at local health and global warming effects separately, a new study out of Stanford has found that the two are directly linked. It’s well established that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and that increased temperatures can exacerbate air pollution, but the new study shows that CO2 “domes” that develop over urban areas are, in fact, causing health problems for city-dwellers.  The study, conducted by civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Jacobsen, looked at models for the contiguous 48 states, for California and for the Los Angeles area. Results showed an increased death rate in all three areas compared to what the rate would be if no local carbon dioxide were being emitted.

Neither current regulations, nor the federal cap-and-trade bill passed by the House address the local effects of CO2 emissions on health.  Jacobsen says that this study provides evidence that they should.  He estimated an increase in premature mortality of 50-to-100 deaths per year from local CO2 emissions in California.

Jacobsen talks about his study in the video, below.

Climate Change and Public Health

Photo by Genie Gratto

Photo by Genie Gratto

Many believe that climate change presents us with opportunities to tackle multiple problems with a single well-designed response. The authors of this guest post suggest that public health presents one of those opportunities.

Public Health and Climate Change: A Shared Agenda

by Marice Ashe and Richard Jackson

Climate change may be the greatest threat to human health in this century. More intense heat waves will make bad air even worse. More severe droughts and floods will further imperil the water supply California is already struggling to protect. The world is going to see a rise in the number of water-, food-, insect- and animal-borne diseases we have to fight.

Who will suffer most? The elderly, children and the poor—populations that are least able to and can least afford to adapt to such extreme conditions. Although public health leaders have a responsibility to protect and enhance the well-being of the entire population—and especially those most at risk—we have lagged behind in considering climate change as one of the threats that we must confront.

In March, we released An Action Plan for Public Health: Initial Recommendations for Involving Public Health in Climate Change Policy, assembled after talking to more than 150 experts in public health, climate science and environmental law. We hope it helps the public health community think in new terms about their mission.

We must work faster, because making communities healthier can prevent climate change. For example, we work with communities all around California to create safe walking paths and bike routes throughout cities. We encourage these changes to prevent obesity and increase community safety. But when people get out of their cars, they also put less carbon emissions in the air. We call this a “co-benefit:” by taking one action to improve physical health, we gain other benefits to improve planetary health.

Other co-benefits happen when we encourage the development of new housing and retail centers close to public transit. This increases exercise while keeping people out of their cars. But why stop there? Transit-oriented development also preserves agricultural lands for food production and protects our food security. With anticipated changes in rainfall, agricultural pest and disease patterns will shift, too.  Safeguarding a regionally based and resilient food system should be a primary public health goal in addressing climate change.

We are working with communities to make it easier to hold farmer’s markets, get more healthy foods in corner markets, and increase fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. This is particularly critical in poor and under-served areas where it’s harder to find healthy and affordable food. The public health goal is to lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, which are epidemic in those communities. As a co-benefit, it expands opportunities for local and regional growers who bring the food a much shorter distance on the way to market, thus dropping transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Improving public health will mitigate climate change, and fighting global warming will make people healthier. By approaching this impending public health disaster from many directions, we stand a better chance of making a real difference.

Marice Ashe, JD, MPH directs Public Health Law & Policy, which partners with advocates, health departments, and policy-makers to create healthier communities. PHLP provides in-depth research and analysis on legal and policy questions, and translates complex information into practical tools and model policies for community action.

Richard Jackson, MD, MPH is the Chair of the Environmental Health Sciences division of the UCLA School of Public Health. He is the former director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and California State Public Health officer.  Dr. Jackson is a member of the PHLP Board of Directors.

Climate Conference, Day 2: Re-roof the World

Morning presentations covered various public health effects from climate change (mostly from air pollution) and some ideas for carbon sequestration, from the potential for low-tech wetlands storage, to the huge WestCarb pilot project, aimed at injecting surplus carbon dioxide into subterranean rock formations. Just approved by DOE is a plan to inject a million tons of CO2 over a four-year period, at a site near Bakersfield. John Henry Beyer of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab says that oil companies may be able to use the stored CO2 for “enhanced oil & gas recovery.”

Greg Rau of UC Santa Cruz cast the mandatory pall-of-the-day with a blunt assessment of the battle against global warming: “We are failing to mitigate atmospheric CO2.” Too much of growing energy demand is being met with fossil fuels, Rau explained. “We need to urgently think about this.” Most of Rau’s talk was devoted to the problem of ocean acidification, recently profiled by my colleague Lauren Sommer for Quest Radio.

One guy who’s done a lot of thinking about it is Hashem Akbari, who will take the lectern today to call upon cities around the world to move rapidly toward “cool roof” policies. Akbari, who works at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, has been a long-time advocate of using reflective roofing and paving materials to help offset the effect of “urban heat islands.” He says that replacing the roof of one typical suburban home (about 1,000 square feet) can produce a CO2 “offset” of four metric tons. He adds that replacing flat commercial roofing with white “cool” roofing or coatings can increase the solar reflectance of the roof from as low as 10% to as high as 80% (at least until it gets dirty). I  interviewed Akbari for a Quest Radio piece on heat islands last year.