There's Something In The Air
Updated: Sep 6
A Comprehensive Look Into The Effect of Air Quality in the Central Valley
By Macy Myers: Air quality in the San Joaquin Valley is impacted by many different interconnected factors including geography, transportation, and agricultural production and processing. Efforts to improve air quality are also connected on physical, economic, and political levels. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) contends with these realities in their efforts to protect the public from the impacts of air pollution. While some people feel CARB’s proposed results and legislation leaves a fill in the blanks mess in solving air quality issues, many other programs, like S.A.F.E., work on a different level helping vulnerable communities survive air quality concerns. These actions don’t take place in a vacuum – they may be connected in ways that are easy to understand; other connections may be more complicated.
Photo By Fahul Azmi
At the Water, Energy, and Technology Center, we want to be informed and inform others on the status of real-time air quality issues in the valley, and what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint from a water, energy, and agtech standpoint. We sought higher expertise and interviewed Dr. Tania Pacheco-Werner, Co-Director at the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State.
Dr. Pacheco-Werner is a member of the California Air Resources Board and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. She is a medical sociologist by training and received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, San Francisco. A health policy researcher by training; her focus is on the neighborhood effects on health. She has published articles on the effects of air quality on maternal-child health. In addition, she has policy publications on the relationship between air quality mitigation and residential segregation. Dr. Pacheco-Werner is an expert in community engagement for policy efforts, most recently involved in the Fresno economic equity initiative DRIVE (Developing the Region’s Inclusive and Vibrant Economy). She is the co-creator of the COVID-19 Equity Project in Fresno County, which uses the community health worker model in the response to the pandemic. The curriculum for this model has been adopted in other counties.
Q & A With Dr. Pacheco-Werner
Q. Tell us about yourself. How/why did you get involved in the Central Valley Health Policy Institute? What is some of the work/research you have done in your area of expertise?
A. I am now the co-director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute but I actually started as a research intern in 2009. It's been really fun staying in this organization throughout the years, watching it grow, and seeing the impact that it's had on the Valley when it comes to conversations around health equity, social determinants of health, and environmental impacts on health, and now leading the way talking about the impacts of climate change. Some of the work that I've led throughout the years has been related to community health workers, maternal child health, housing, economic development, and environmental impacts on health. However, I would say that the common thread of my work has always been how neighborhood policies (what a neighborhood looks like, how it's built, and what resources it does and doesn't have) impact individual health.
Q. A lot of your published articles surround the impacts of air quality on overall health
across many demographics and regions. Can you tell us more about some of the
challenges Fresno is currently experiencing, and how do you think we can solve them?
A. While we do have our geography working against us in the San Joaquin Valley as a whole, I think one of our challenges in Fresno continues to be in the mobile source area. Communities are very impacted by truck traffic and our overall dependence on vehicles that emit harmful air pollution. There are many solutions to this including transitioning to cleaner vehicles such as zero-emission vehicles. However, we also need to think about how we change the way that we move around to be less car dependent overall and make sure people have safe and reliable access to walkable neighborhoods and public transportation in order to reduce our dependence on cars.
Q. Apart from the emissions of cars and trucks, what are a few attainable ways we can cut
A. One of the things that we don't pay attention to but that really impacts our air pollution during the winter is the dependence on wood fire burning. While some people may see that as an individual act that happens in the comfort of their own home, in the winter we actually all share that pollution and it sticks around with us for a long time especially when there is an inversion layer trapping that pollution in our communities. So finding alternative ways to heat our homes during the winter is one way to reduce emissions. Another way we can cut emissions is by how businesses, developers, and agriculture work together to reduce other pollutants like dust. When affordable, seeking to electrify appliances within our homes to reduce the need for natural gas is also an important part of the puzzle to lowering emissions, not only for our Valley but even within our own homes.
Q. Do farm emissions count for much of the direct particulate emissions in the San Joaquin
Valley? What are some of the other leading emitters?
A. Farming definitely continues to be an important part of how we work as a Valley and also continues to face air pollution challenges due to many factors relating to farm equipment and the processes of farming that yield dust. There is a lot of work being done in that arena and I think we'll see more in the coming years to continue to cut emissions there as well. There are definitely other emissions related to other industries such as development and oil and gas that we need to think about as we look for new opportunities for emission reductions in the valley. However in terms of "bang for your buck," transitioning any moving vehicle including locomotives from diesel dependent to zero emission alternatives is going to yield our biggest reductions.
Q. What can we (the community) do from a public health perspective in the valley? In what
ways do you think we can make a lasting difference?
A. I think one of the things that we can continue to do is elevate the need for us to receive new funding that continues to be more and more available at the federal and state level to fight things like climate change in order to have some of the co-benefits of emission reductions in the valley. From an equity perspective, this funding is really most needed in regions like ours, which are not very common throughout the country, that face the challenges that we do. I also think that getting educated on the relationship between bad air days and our health is crucial. I have seen people running and public events being held on some of our dirtiest air days. We really need to know the impact that that has on our lungs, heart, and our overall health.
Q. How will we see a benefit in crop yields, public health, and more from reduced
A. I can speak to the public health aspect and tell you that what we've created here are generations of people at risk for many diseases related to air pollution that would greatly benefit from reduced emissions. We could see reduced ER visits, hospitalizations, and early death. Diesel particulate matter is a carcinogen so reducing that would also decrease the current population risk.
Q. What laws or regulations are in place now to limit air quality issues and emissions?
A. In the San Joaquin Valley, we have some of the strongest regulations to regulate agriculture, oilers, and new businesses. However, we don't have enough on the federal level for things like airplanes, trucks, and locomotives coming from out of state.
Q. How can institutions like the Water, Energy, and Technology (WET) Center continue to
help with solving carbon-emission issues?
A. I think we are at such an exciting time in our history when there is so much innovation happening and sometimes the public doesn't really have a way of understanding the potential for innovation. You are a great voice coming from an important community that is science and university-based and can really help not only elevate issues but also new solutions coming on the horizon.
Q. Where can people go to learn about air quality updates?
A. You can visit valleyair.org to learn more about what's being done to cut emissions in our region. There are also many apps that can help people know about and understand air quality and its impacts on health. Airnow.gov is a great source for both air pollution and wildfire smoke when that's a problem.
Q. Is there anything else you would like us to know that you haven’t already shared?
A. Air pollution is not an intractable problem in our valley. We have already seen great strides since the 1990s and I think that we can make some real progress over the next decade if we continue to implement solutions at the system and personal level.
Looking Up To The Clouds
As Dr. Pacheco shared, we can make a difference by being educated in healthy air living, advocating for support on a federal level, and practicing lower emission behaviors at home. Meanwhile the Water, Energy, and Technology Center supports ventures and their clients working on a wide range of solutions such as solar panels over canals, and even strategic water management. We also stay up to date with ground-breaking innovators in the valley who adopt electric transportation like Producers Dairy. Most importantly, we challenge and help ignite a light in the next generation to meet the carbon emission issues we face through events like our Destination Decarbonization Challenge.
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