Monday, August 13, 2007

Seeking Relief Where the Air Is Deemed the Dirtiest

ARVIN, Calif., Aug. 11 (AP) — Ana Maria Corona was driving home in June when she began gasping for air. She prayed she would not get into an accident.

“I asked God, ‘Let me see my daughters one last time,’ ” Ms. Corona, 43, recalled in an interview at her home in this San Joaquin Valley farm community. A doctor later told Ms. Corona, who already had asthma, that she now also had a lung infection.

That is life in Arvin, home to the nation’s worst air pollution, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Doctors and public officials say asthma and other respiratory problems are common in this town of roughly 15,000 people about 20 miles southeast of Bakersfield.

Arvin’s level of ozone, the primary component in smog, exceeded the amount considered acceptable by the agency on an average of 73 days per year from 2004 to 2006. Second on the agency’s list was the Southern California town of Crestline, at 65 days. The San Francisco Bay Area averaged just four days over the same period.

Arvin may seem an unlikely setting for the nation’s worst air. It lies in a rich agricultural region surrounded by vineyards and orange groves. The nearby town of Weedpatch was immortalized by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Many of its mostly Hispanic residents work in the fields, and it has none of the smoke-belching factories or congested freeways of large urban centers like Los Angeles.

Although the city itself may not produce much pollution, like much of the San Joaquin Valley, it does not get rid of what blows in. Surrounding mountains trap airborne particles that coat the single-story homes and deserted streets and can blot out views of the nearby Tehachapi range on hot summer days.

Arvin’s main problem is its location. It lies downwind of every city in the valley, making it the final destination for air pollution from Bakersfield, Fresno and even the Bay Area. Residents say the air often smells toxic.

A 2002 study published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, found children who breathe polluted air are more likely to develop asthma, although that conclusion has been challenged by other researchers.

While specific data for Arvin is not available, surrounding Kern County has a childhood asthma rate that exceeds that of both the state and the nation.

According to a 2003 report from the California Department of Health Services, 17.5 percent of children under the age of 18 in Kern County suffer from asthma. That compares to a state average of 14.8 percent. The national average in 2002 was 12.2 percent, according to the state report.

August 12, 2007

Dr. Ronnie Pasiliao, who works at the community health center in Arvin, said asthma and allergies were the primary conditions he treated. Dr. Pasiliao advises patients to stay inside when the air is bad but realizes not all can follow that advice because they work in the fields.

Still, the San Joaquin Valley air board voted in April to extend by 11 years the region’s deadline to meet federal ozone standards, saying cleaning up the air by the previous target date of 2012 was not possible. Ms. Brar of Arvin was among two board members who voted against the decision.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger criticized the decision when the California Air Resources Board voted in June to approve the local board’s extension. A few days later he fired the board’s chairman.

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering the extension.

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