Santa Clara County is still struggling to clean up its poor air quality, with communities of color among the most affected.

The American Lung Association’s newly released 2023 State of the Air report shows Santa Clara County scored an “F” on the report in high ozone days and particle pollution levels—factors that contribute to an array of health concerns including asthma and respiratory infections. Experts said bad air quality and pollution disproportionately affects low-income residents and communities of color, and requires immediate attention.

Gabriela Chavez-Lopez, executive director of the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley, said low-income communities, especially those in East San Jose, have long been disproportionately impacted by pollution. She said low-income residents live in areas where commerce and transportation are prioritized, meaning air quality is often deprioritized. She said an example is the Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose. A 2021 county report revealed elevated lead levels in the blood of children living near the area.

“If I live in a poor neighborhood, I’m just going to accept the conditions,” Chavez-Lopez told San José Spotlight. “That really shouldn’t be the case, that shouldn’t be normalized.”

Drew Clark, Sustainable Silicon Valley board chair and director of air quality and mobility, said looking at air quality block-by-block across Santa Clara County helps determine where pollutants are spiking and where there are disparities in air quality.

“You can’t just say, ‘Well, the county has bad air.’ There are certain communities in the county that are very high (in pollution),” Clark told San José Spotlight.

Clark said the nonprofit is working in East San Jose to address air quality and has a community partnership with the East Side Union High School District to raise awareness and increase advocacy. The group previously had air quality improvement projects in East Palo Alto, which upon investigation found higher levels of childhood asthma and other respiratory conditions in residents that lived in high ozone areas of town.

According to the State of the Air report, more than 1.8 million county residents—including people of color, individuals suffering from pediatric or adult asthma and seniors—face health risks from poor air.

The county clocked an average of 5.5 high ozone days throughout 2019-21, an increase from its average of 3.5 days from 2018-20. High ozone days refer to days when ozone surpasses safe levels, and the study notes a reasonable average for a two-year period is 3.2 days. The county saw an average of eight high particle pollution days in 2019-21, a drop from an average of 14.8 days in 2018-20, a small win amid an overall poor air quality rating. High particle pollution days refer to a 24-hour period where particle pollution is at unsafe levels, and the study notes a reasonable average is also 3.2 days over two years.

Erin Demerritt, spokesperson for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said high ozone levels are typically strongest from May to October, when air quality creates a thick layer of smog. In the county and surrounding areas, she said transportation is another big factor. In response, the air district introduced a program for residents to trade in smog-producing vehicles for clean air vehicles.

“Traffic congestion and the number of single-occupancy vehicles on Bay Area roads really continues to impede our progress to reduce ozone and greenhouse gasses,” Demerritt told San José Spotlight.

California cities make up the majority of top 10 U.S. cities with the highest amounts of short-term particle pollution, according to the report—with the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland area coming in sixth overall. The area came in seventh among U.S. cities most impacted by year-round particle pollution.

Demerritt said climate change remains another important factor to consider when examining the results of the report. She said high particle pollution numbers in Santa Clara County were influenced by local fires in recent years, as well as wildfires throughout the surrounding region.

“Wildfire smoke, it’s significantly impacted us for years and it’s masking years of progress to reduce fine particulate pollution here in the Bay Area,” Demerritt told San José Spotlight. “Our progress is really backsliding with climate change causing more extreme weather that is supercharging these wildfires.”

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