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What's in the Air Up There?

Pollution settles in the valley, making air quality in San Jose 40 percent worse than the Bay Area average

By Michael Learmonth

THE CANCER RISK for an individual breathing in downtown San Jose is 500 in a million. That compares to an average of 313 for the San Francisco Bay Area. San Jose's health risk is based on measured levels of ambient ozone, benzene, 1,3 butadiene, dioxin, heavy metals, airborne particles and other toxins. Levels of carcinogenic benzene and 1,3 butadiene are particularly high.

The major culprits? Six major freeways, 25 million driving miles a day, and valley geography.

The Santa Clara Valley doesn't get the cleansing Pacific breezes that keep the skylines of other bay cities clean. The valley's major sources of ventilation come all the way from the Golden Gate and from the San Bruno Gap. Unfortuntately, the San Bruno Gap breezes bring some of the Peninsula's smog with it.

"The wind blows over Daly City bringing with it more and more pollution," said Randy Wittorp of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The result is air quality that resembles the Central Valley more than the San Francisco Bay Area.

Summer is especially bad, because the heat causes auto emissions to react with organic gasses to form ozone. Organic gasses come from solvents that evaporate into the air from industry, household aerosol cans, pump spray bottles, oil-based paints, furniture products and pesticides.

Chloroflourocarbons were banned for destroying stratospheric ozone-the good kind that protects us from the sun. Ironically, CFCs were replaced by hydrocarbons in spray bottles and cans which escape into the atmosphere, react with auto emissions and create low-level ozone-the toxic kind.

"We're destroying ozone where we want it and creating it where we don't want it," said Wittorp.

Supporting a valley population that's 1.5 million and growing will require new communities that are pedestrian-oriented, said Wittorp. Citizens can Spare the Air by driving less, using electric mowers and lawn equipment, water-based paints, fewer spray bottles and cans and saving the roaring fire for winter nights when the air quality is good.

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro

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