The Health Beat Blog

Wednesday, Apr 30 2014 12:00 AM

THE PULSE: Breathing in Bakersfield can be harmful to your health

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    Courtenay Edelhart covers health care for The Californian. Reach her at cedelhart@bakersfield.com, at Facebook.com/TBCHealth or on Twitter@TBCHealth.

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By COURTENAY EDELHART, Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

BREATHE EASIER: Bakersfield air quality has improved by two key measures, but it's still some of the worst in the nation, according to the American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report.

Kern County saw its lowest-ever reported levels of short-term and year-round particulate pollution since the report started tracking them in 2000.

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ABOUT YOUR REPORTER

Courtenay Edelhart covers health care for The Californian. She writes in this spot every Wednesday. Contact her at cedelhart@bakersfield.com, at Facebook.com/TBCHealth or on Twitter @TBCHealth.

Short-term particulates cause spikes in bad air that last a few hours or days, as opposed to long-term particulates, which hang around all year.

There were an average of 33.8 unhealthy short-term particulate matter days in the three-year period from 2010 to 2102, compared with 46.5 in the previous three years, according to the report.

For some perspective, that's down from an average of 73.7 days in the years 2000-2002.

Kern County's year-round particulates fell to an average of 15.6 micrograms per cubic meter in the last three years the report examined, down from an average 18.2 days in the previous three years.

Great news and nothing to sneeze at, but it still ranked the metro area third nationally for ozone and both kinds of particulate pollution, behind No. 2 Hanford-Visalia and the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside metro area, which had the worst air in the United States.

"Absolutely no surprise to us," said Jaime Holt, spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. "We have known and continue to know about the challenges we have in the valley due to our topography and meteorology.

"We don't produce more pollution. It's just that we have some natural challenges."

Nine of the nation's most polluted metro areas were in California, and the San Joaquin Valley was the most polluted region in the state.

Improving valley air quality is particularly hard because of its hot summers and a mountainous terrain that traps pollution, said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior director of policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association in California.

"Initiatives that have been effective in other areas often take longer to produce the same results in the valley, so we need to step up our efforts there," she said.

Poor air quality poses a health risk to all people, but is especially dangerous to the young, elderly and those with respiratory illnesses.

Kern County has about 22,000 children with asthma, and 52,000 adults struggle with the disease.

Another 26,000 county residents have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

Holmes-Gen praised policies designed to clean the air, including limiting wood burning in the winter and incentives to upgrade old diesel trucks.

But there's a lot more work to do, said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association.

The association is lobbying for caps on carbon emissions, more pedestrian-friendly development, cleaner vehicles and a stricter national ozone standard.

"Scientists are looking at research that shows clearly that the standard that we have now is not sufficient," she said. "Studies show health harms well below the current standard."

Kern County's ozone pollution was nearly flat in the last two periods scrutinized in the report.

Ozone is a molecule that's found naturally in the stratosphere, but generally only turns up in the lower part of the atmosphere as a result of air pollution from engines and power plants.

We like ozone to stay up high where it protects us from ultraviolet sunlight, but ozone in the lower part of the atmosphere causes respiratory problems such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

Kern County had an average 78.5 unhealthy ozone days over the three-year period from 2010 to 2012, according to the report, compared with 78.3 in the previous three years.

One other thing.

The 2014 report relies on data that's a little behind, so it does not include air quality measures from this year or last, when we've been ravaged by drought.

Pollution thrives in dry years in which a lot more dust flies around and parched mountains are prone to wildfires.

None of that bodes well for next year's report.

Stay tuned.

SAN JOAQUIN CANCER GIFT

CALPI Inc., a Bakersfield company that provides services to the oil and gas industry, is giving $21,000 to the AIS Cancer Center at San Joaquin Community Hospital.

About two-thirds of the money will be used to provide free patient transportation to and from the center. The rest will be an unrestricted gift to the hospital's Greatest Need Fund to be used at the discretion of the San Joaquin Community Hospital Foundation board.

RANKS OF INSURED GROWING

Four percent of Americans who have health insurance now were not covered last year , according to a new Gallup poll.

A little more than half that group, or 2.1 percent of the U.S. population, got their new insurance through health exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act. The rest got it somewhere else.

Overall, 11.8 percent of U.S. adults said they got a new health insurance policy this year. One-third of this group, or 4 percent nationally, said they did not have insurance last year. Another 7.5 percent got a new policy this year that replaced a previous policy. The rest either did not respond or were uncertain about their previous insurance status.

STROKE TREATMENT

Most surveyed adults would want clot-dissolving medications if incapacitated by a stroke, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That may sound like a no-brainer, but it has important implications for the debate over whether to use such medications when patients are unable to provide consent, and surrogates aren't around to approve the treatment on their behalf.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that 76.2 percent of adults age 50 and older said they wanted the treatment under those circumstances.

FACIAL TRANSPLANTS

It's been nine years since the world was shocked by news of the first face transplant , replacing the face of a 38-year-old French woman mauled by a dog.

Since then, there have been 28 face transplants performed worldwide, and The Lancet medical journal this month checked in on the patients to see how they have fared.

So far none of them have reported chronic rejection of their donated skin.

The medical community is divided on the ethics of performing the surgery. Recipients have to be placed on powerful immunosuppressants for the rest of their lives to keep them from rejecting their new faces.

Those medicines carry risk because they diminish the body's ability to fight infection.

It's easy to justify taking that risk when replacing a vital organ that's keeping a patient alive. Whether to go down that road for cosmetic surgery is less clear.

All of the patients so far have been people horribly disfigured by accidents or disease. To them, obviously, the risk was worth it.

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