One year ago Tuesday, a fire at Chevron's Richmond oil refinery sent black smoke wafting across the East Bay.
Contra Costa Health Services asked residents to stay in their homes, close the windows, and wait it out. About 11,000 people sought medical treatment. Many suffered from eye, nasal and throat irritations that were short-lived. For those with pre-existing asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, their cough and shortness of breath increased dramatically, sometimes for extended periods.
This refinery fire was a dramatic demonstration that air pollution is bad for our health. A more compelling concern is the evidence that chronic, low-level exposure to air pollution has serious long-lasting adverse effects, including stunting of lung growth and increasing asthma among children, premature death in those with chronic lung diseases, and heart attacks.
A recent study in Europe has added to the growing body of evidence showing that increasing exposure to particulate air pollution, that is tiny particles of pollutants small enough to pass down into our lungs, increases the risk of lung cancer. These findings may help to explain lung cancers among those who never smoked cigarettes.
According to the American Lung Association in California's recent State of the Air Report, 90 percent of Californians live in areas with unhealthy air. Those from lower socioeconomic groups are disproportionately exposed because they tend to live closer to refineries and freeways in towns like Richmond.
Each year, 9,000 Californians die prematurely because of unhealthy air. Add in the tens of thousands of emergency room visits and hospitalizations triggered by bad air annually in California, and you can imagine the staggering medical expenses, lost wages, and days lost from school because of air pollution.
What can we do to make our air cleaner and safer? We should support prompt implementation of California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Since 70 percent of smog and soot in our state comes from sources related to transportation, the place to start is with transportation fuels.
Enacted in 2007 as part of California's Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), the Low Carbon Fuel Standard requires that fuels used in transportation in our state be 10 percent cleaner by 2020.
It will encourage the oil industry to invest in new technologies and cleaner fuels like renewably generated electricity, biofuels, and natural gas. Physicians and medical professional organizations across the state support the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
But in the California Legislature, Chevron and its allies are spending heavily to rally opposition to the measure and delay its implementation.
When it comes to reducing air pollution in California, cleaning up fuels is only one piece of the solution. But it is an important and necessary part. We must not let the oil companies slow our transition to a healthier, alternative-fuel future.
Contact the American Lung Association in California to learn how you can help: www.lung.org/associations/states/California.
Dr. James K. Brown is a physician at Veterans Affairs Medical Center-SF, professor at UCSF, and chairman of the California Thoracic Society's Health Care Policy Committee.