According to a new report from the American Lung Association, the San Francisco Bay Area ranks among the 10 most polluted areas in the country — and Marin County isn’t doing much to help the cause.

The study, entitled State of the Air 2017, is based on air quality monitoring from 2013 to 2015 and it looks at two distinct areas of air pollution: ozone offenses and airborne polluting particles. Marin scored an A grade as far as ozone damage, but only eked out a C when it came to particles polluting the air.

“Marin does score well on ozone, along with other Bay area counties. This is largely because of the lower population and number of cars in the region and the proximity to the coast and the coastal breezes that clear out pollution and send it inland to Sacramento or the upper San Joaquin Valley,” explained Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior director of air quality and climate change for the American Lung Association (ALA) in California. “Wintertime wood smoke tends to be the major culprit increasing particle pollution or soot levels in Marin County and the reason for the unhealthy days. Wood smoke pollution can get trapped in the region during stagnant winter conditions such as during the drought and increase exposures to dirty air. Traffic pollutants can also contribute to soot levels.”

The Bay Area’s particle pollution ranked sixth nationwide based on the number of unhealthy days and fourth nationwide for year-round levels. This puts area residents at risk for health problems like asthma and lung cancer, the ALA reported.

There was a reduction in the number of days with unhealthy levels of ozone. San Francisco, Marin, Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties all had zero unhealthy ozone days during the period monitored. The report also indicates that the number of unhealthy ozone days dropped throughout the state and nationwide, to which the American Lung Association attributes the federal Clean Air Act.

“The main message is that while Marin County does better on smog pollution than other areas of the state, residents still have to be concerned about avoiding wood burning and making other efforts to cut soot pollution,” said Holmes-Gen. “Accelerating cleaner transportation such as electric vehicles in the region and supporting state efforts to transition to zero emission transportation is another way that Marin County residents can help.”

One way Marin communities are striving to clean the air is by fighting tobacco use, but the results have been mixed. Among Marin municipalities, there were three cities receiving an A-grade, one B and the rest got C’s. In nearly every situation, the cities receiving A’s managed to do so by finding ways to reduce the sale of tobacco products, including to minors.

But vehicle exhaust and other factors weigh more heavily than cigarette smoke.

“I would also note that diesel pollution controls are important measures across the state that reduce traffic pollution and exposure to soot particles,” said Holmes-Gen.

The report says that California has the dubious distinction of being home to the majority of the Top 10 cities with ozone and particle pollution in the United States. More than 90 percent of Californians live in areas with unhealthy air at some point during the year, a serious public health concern at a time when the federal government is considering rolling back clean air protections.

“Our state’s air quality continues to hit unhealthy levels each year, putting Californians at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma, COPD, and lung cancer,” said Olivia Diaz-Lapham, ALA president. “We are seeing continued improvement in parts of the state, but there are too many areas where residents are breathing dirty air and we must work to reduce the sources of air pollution.”

There is good news in the 2017 report. Despite remaining challenges, the Federal Clean Air Act and state and local clean air policies are driving steady progress in the fight for clean air, and some cities have had their cleanest year yet.

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The research evidence grows and grows that wood smoke pollution causes serious illness and premature deaths. For neighbors of wood burners, especially those with chronic health conditions, the level of localized pollution is often a nightmare, leading to a seriously reduced quality of life and to hospital visits that otherwise would not have happened. There is nothing more nightmarish than having one's house bathed in smoke and being unable to breathe.

It has recently been shown that when pollution comes specifically from wood stoves, the risk of heart attacks in the elderly increases 19%, supporting other studies that have strongly suggested that wood smoke pollution is particularly bad for the heart. There is even evidence from multiple studies that the fine particulate matter that is abundant in wood smoke substantially increases the risk of stroke and dementia. These are very high prices to pay so your neighbors can heat with wood.

The hearth industry spends millions of dollars annually to push ineffective wood stove to wood stove changeouts and to promote the idea that wood burning can be done safely. These tactics are similar to those that were used by the tobacco companies back in the day to cast doubt on health fears over smoking and to keep people lighting up. The main lobbying organization for the hearth industry even runs an "academy" in D.C. to teach wood stove sellers and manufacturers how to fight against clean air legislation and the growing science on wood smoke. These are the actions of an industry that is peddling harmful products and feels threatened.

Public health must come first. It is time to eliminate wood burning in residential areas.

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