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Clouded Future: Margo Leathers-Sidener knows first-hand the effects of smog--she watched her young son become sick from it.

Air Sickness

New studies show that the Santa Clara Valley's air quality is literally taking some people's breath away

By Novella Carpenter

WHEN MARGO Leathers-Sidener, mother of two, moved with her engineer husband to south San Jose in 1979, she left behind the rolling hills, farmland and fresh air of upstate New York. But California, Margo assumed, would offer bucolic charms of its own. So she remembers being shocked when she looked out the window of her new house in San Jose and saw a brown fog surrounding everything. "What is that?" she asked her husband.

It was smog. In 1979, leaded gas brimmed in gas tanks, and air quality was approaching the worst it had ever been. At night, particulates quietly pooled along suburban streets, shrouding the homes in Margo's neighborhood in a ghostly darkness.

In 1980, Margo became pregnant with her first child and, simultaneously, developed a terrible cough.

"The doctors didn't know what it was, so they prescribed codeine cough syrup," she relates. Margo coughed so much that she cracked a rib and was put on bed rest for the last two months of her pregnancy. Her son, Kevin, came early--premature, probably because of the coughing.

Margo noticed that Kevin coughed a lot, too. When she called her doctor about it, he told her to give him some cough syrup.

"One day, I was giving Kevin a bath," Margo says, "and as I washed him, he stopped breathing. I got him to the hospital as fast as I could. He pulled through and had to stay in the hospital for eight days."

The doctors couldn't detect a virus or bacteria and made the diagnosis: asthma. They later diagnosed Margo with asthma, too.

For people who don't have it, asthma might not seem like a big deal. But it requires a daily preventative oral medication that contains steroids, and it imposes the constant, looming fear of an attack. Asthma can sometimes be fatal.

"After my son was diagnosed, I was afraid for him, but I never realized how bad it was until I had an attack myself. I coughed and coughed and couldn't get air," Margo says. "I ran to the sink and vomited. It is a feeling of pure terror."

The Air Out There

Forget oil spills. Forget fast food. According to Patricia Monahan, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former EPA air pollution and toxics specialist, air pollution is California's biggest environ-mental and health problem.

"Air monitoring shows that over 90 percent of Californians breathe unhealthy levels of one or more air pollutants during some part of the year," Monahan says. That polluted air is making people sick, especially children.

A study recently released by the University of Southern California finds that smog may not just exacerbate asthma, as has always been thought, but might in fact cause asthma.

In the study, 3,500 children in Southern California were followed over a five-year period. The children lived in 12 different communities, of which six had been determined to have higher-than-average ozone concentrations while six had lower-than-average ozone. None of the children had asthma when the study began. By the end of five years, 265 did.

The study found that those children in high-ozone communities developed asthma at a rate three times higher than those in low-ozone communities. Children, because they are smaller, breathe faster and spend much more time outdoors. Because they are still growing and developing, they are often more susceptible to illnesses caused by polluted air.

Asthma isn't the only illness associated with poor air quality: there are possible links to pulmonary disease, lower birth rates and a lessening of lung function and development. Pregnant women exposed to high levels of ozone and carbon monoxide are three times more likely to have babies with cleft lips and palates. Researchers also showed there may be a link between air pollution and increased risk of cancers like leukemia. In laboratory studies, ozone has also been shown to increase susceptibility to bacterial pneumonia infection in animals.

But isn't terrible air quality a Southern California problem? Actually, no. Los Angeles County, with a population of 10 million, reports almost 500,000 cases of adult asthma, or 5 for every 100 adults. Santa Clara County, with a population of 1.7 million, has 89,840 cases--the same ratio, 5 in 100, as Los Angeles.

Although Los Angeles ranked No. 1 in the American Lung Association's 2002 most-ozone-polluted list, the ALA also reported that Santa Clara County's rate of pollution-related diseases, such as adult asthma, rivals that of the most polluted cities: 89,840 cases of adult asthma, compared to Sacramento, which only has 63,132 cases.

1-800-HELP-AIR

Luckily, someone is monitoring the skies. In an anonymous '60s-era office building in downtown San Francisco, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District plays Big Air Brother. Here, a forecasting center receives transmissions from 22 meteorological towers, and a laboratory analyzes data from 28 air-quality monitoring stations.

"I don't want to put a black mark on an entire area, but there are some places that are worse than others. Livermore, in Diablo Valley, and the Santa Clara Valley, those are the two worst," says Lucia Libretti, the management district's spokesperson.

Short, with a firm handshake, Libretti sports an East Coast efficiency, dispersing statistics and acronyms with ease. For instance: According to the California Air Resources Board, Santa Clara County has the highest levels of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and carbon dioxide of any county in the district. Nitrogen oxide, one of the main ingredients in smog, is highest in Santa Clara County, with 145 tons per day. Particulate matter, a lung irritant, was recorded at 53 tons per day.

To explain particulate matter, Libretti opens the door to a laboratory where six technicians and one lead scientist bustle around in white coats. There are shiny, high-volume canisters for taking gas samples, lab benches lined with samples and whirring spectroscopy equipment. One of the techs brings out the PM10 (particulates sized 10 microns or less) sheets. Each monitoring station--in this particular sample, San Jose East--sucks in air past a filter. Every six days, the filter is taken out and weighed, and the data documented.

The filter looks like a piece of paper with a thick drift of dryer lint taped to it in a perfect square. The particles sized 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5) are sampled with smaller slides. The smaller particulates are the worst stuff; they can remain suspended in the air for weeks (ozone usually dissipates by evening). If inhaled, they can become embedded in lung tissues, impairing breathing and sometimes catalyzing cancer.

Part of the Santa Clara Valley's air quality problem has to do with its topography. With the convergence of the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west and the Diablo range on the east, the valley functions "like a giant mixing bowl," as Libretti puts it.

Bad smog days develop when there's an inversion in temperature--instead of air getting cooler as it goes up, it warms. This inversion forms what they call a loft, which traps air. If the wind isn't blowing and mixing the air, the air under the loft becomes stagnant. Add car exhaust and sunlight to the mix, and the result is ozone. Violà! Smog--pooling smog.

Topography underscores the paradox of air pollution. Caused by mobile sources like cars and trucks, which make up 60 to 75 percent of emissions, it moves at the whim of the wind patterns. This means that even wealthier communities like Los Gatos and San Jose, which enjoy enough political clout and lobbying acumen to petition away the installation of, say, a vinyl chloride factory in their backyard, are as helpless as children against the attack of bad air.

Libretti explains it with a shrug: "We're all in the soup together."

Nonattainment Blues

In a recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, 58 percent of Californians questioned said they believe that air pollution is a serious health threat to themselves and their immediate family, but when asked how their own driving contributes to pollution, only 13 percent reported being very concerned.

Because of the Santa Clara Valley and other problem areas, this year, just as last year, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has failed to reach state and federal ozone and particulate matter attainment standards. The air quality standards are set at levels determined to be protective of public health with an adequate margin of safety. If, during a three-year period, three days exceed the standard at any monitoring station, the district has nonattainment status.

This is where frustration sets in at the district. Although it exercises strict control on things like factory emissions, it wields very little power over the thing that causes the most air pollution: cars. The district doesn't have the jurisdiction to change car emission levels or mandate a lowering of diesel emissions for off-highway equipment like bulldozers, which contribute significantly to air pollution.

It can only suggest ideas to California's EPA and run programs that encourage individuals to buy greener vehicles, sell older vehicles to its vehicle buy-back program or carpool. The district also runs ad campaigns to help sway people to drive less, car pool or take public transportation. The campaigns are frankly wonky--like the billboards with "Thanks for Taking the Bus" written in a Jurassic Park-style type font across a smiling teenager's hat.

Recently, GM and Chrysler announced that they were dropping a longstanding lawsuit against the state of California over a regulation that required the production of millions of low-emission cars and trucks. The suit had argued that California did not have the jurisdiction to set emissions standards.

Historically, California has been ahead of national regulations of air pollution, starting in 1947, when Gov. Earl Warren enacted the Pollution Control Act. It took 20 years before the Federal Air Quality Act was passed, and even then, it cribbed standards for new vehicles from California's standards. This has established the precedent that California sets its own air standards; other states can choose California's regulations over the federal regulations.

It's thought that the suit was dropped because the automakers realized California represented too huge a market--10 percent of all new cars sold in America--to alienate. Although it's a powerful feeling knowing that California's air quality policies dramatically influence those of other states, it's bittersweet. California leads in clean-air technology but only because the state's air is so dirty. And why is the air so dirty? The bottom line is we drive too much.

As cutting edge as our public policies may be, ultimately the car-buying public makes the final decision, and the public seems to be in denial.

It is this kind of sentiment that frustrates Margo, the asthma sufferer. Asked what should be done about the problem of poor air quality in Santa Clara County, Margo says, "We definitely need people to stop this disconnect between their actions and behavior. If you drive an SUV, you're making an impact. There has to some kind of 'aha' moment in our culture when people realize that every day you can contribute to making the air better."


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From the September 25-October 1, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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